Review: Gang of Four's lineup evolves, but classic songs still kill at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg
“Change is what we do,” Gang of Four sang on Why Theory?, and judging from their show Wednesday at State Theatre in St. Petersburg, those are words the band’s modern iteration has taken to heart.
The group started with change, with their debut Entertainment! remaining one of the seminal documents of the burgeoning ‘70s English post-punk movement along with Wire’s Pink Flag and Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. Then they continued to switch up sounds and members as they released records fitfully over five decades.
After 2011’s Content, singer Jon King left the group, making guitarist Andy Gill the sole original member. In his former bandmates’ place are the considerably younger John Sterry, bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Jonny Finnegan.
To be sure, seeing Gill performing with people who likely weren’t even alive when Entertainment! came out is an initially disarming sight. Sometimes he seemed like Simon Pegg’s character at the end of The World’s End, continuing on while backed by an ever-youthful supporting cast.
Still, Gang of Four can hardly be accused of being a mere reunion cash grab. They just released a new album called What Happens Next, with guests including The Big Pink’s Robbie Furze and The Kills' and the Dead Weather’s (and formerly of Florida’s own Discount) Alison Mosshart.
And if some audience members were initially skeptical of the new faces (“what happened to Hugo?” one crowd member yelled out in reference to original drummer Hugo Burnham), they seemed won over by the end of the show. Sterry, as well as the new rhythm section of McNeice and Finnegan, proved capable additions to the ever-growing Gang of Four cast.
This iteration of the group may be a more accurate reflection of their current audience as well. The crowd Wednesday was pretty evenly split between aging fans who’d clearly been with the band in their initial run and younger folks discovering them after the fact, perhaps in the ‘00s post-punk revival.
That said, it certainly helps to have a classic album like Entertainment! in your catalog when you’re trying to win over an audience. Gill’s angular guitar groove on Damaged Goods, for instance, remains as exhilarating today as when it was first released.
Gill’s performing now blends the youthful vitality of when he and King first penned these songs with the experienced confidence that comes with having played them for nearly four decades now. To replicate the glorious feedback of Anthrax, he repeatedly threw his guitar to the ground, then at one point took a very stately sip from a glass of wine in between tosses.
The setlist was heavy on tracks from Entertainment!, also including Ether and At Home He’s a Tourist, and its follow-up Solid Gold. Yet they were unafraid to throw in tracks from the more electronic-influenced What Happens Next, including Where the Nightingale Sings and Stranded.
“We’ve all got opinions,” go the opening lines of Why Theory?, and people undoubtedly have their opinions about today’s incarnation of Gang of Four. But that hasn’t stopped them before and it won’t stop them now. Change is what they do.
-- Jimmy Geurts