Graham Lewis; photo by Oscar Lopez for the Sun-Times
Alone among their peers from the punk explosion of the '70s--or, really, the great bands of any style or era that carry the weight of more than three decades of history--legendary English art-punks Wire fight nostalgia as if it is the enemy of life itself, a soul-sapping disease that leads only to misery, decay and death.
Certainly the history is there to exploit. The three masterful albums from the quartet's original incarnation--"Pink Flag" (1977), "Chairs Missing" (1978) and "154" (1980)--have been cited as inspirations by bands as diverse as Minor Threat and R.E.M., My Bloody Valentine and Big Black, Elastica and Yo La Tengo, and those are just a few of the groups that have recorded Wire's songs. A tour heavy on the cult favorites would surely draw large crowds and sizable paydays, and yet the group refuses.
Band members say they turned down a lucrative offer to play the All Tomorrow's Parties night at last summer's Pitchfork Music Festival because they had no interest in exclusively performing one of their older albums. Indeed, during their first ever tour of the U.S. in 1987, they refused to play any older material at all. Instead, as part of a surreal joke that many never understood, they hired a New Jersey cover band to do it for them (and in the interest of journalistic disclosure, I should note that I was a member of that group).
Facing a worshipful crowd at Metro on Saturday during the last night of the American tour in support of the recent "Object 47"--the band's 11th studio album and "47th object" overall in its discography--Wire did reach into the back catalog from time to time, as with a haunting version of "Being Sucked in Again" early in the set. But it did so on its own terms.
"Another shift in time into the present," bassist-lyricist Graham Lewis said after that tune as he prepared to launch into the new "Mekon Headman." Vocalist and guitarist Colin Newman quickly corrected him: "We're always in the present."
And that was the strength of the group's electrifying set. Whether it was tearing through the strong recent material from "Object 47" and "Send" (2003), songs such as "Boiling Boy" and "Advantage in Height" from its first reunion (1986 to 1991) or vintage anthems such as "Pink Flag," "106 Beats That" and "The 15th" (a tune recently covered by Beck, and before him Fischerspooner), the band invested every song with a passion, urgency and immediacy that was completely of the moment, and every tune underscored the core elements of the Wire sound: the juxtaposition of indelible vocal hooks with searing noise, the relentless, machine-like rhythms of drummer Robert Gotobed and the construction of massive walls of sound from minimalist one-chord (and sometimes one-note) drones.
Though original guitarist Bruce Gilbert has left the band, at least for the moment, Winnetka native Margaret Fiedler proved herself a more than worthy replacement. A veteran of Moonskake, Laika, Ultra Vivid Scene and PJ Harvey, she kept her obvious virtuosity in check in the interest of serving Wire's conceptual primitivism, becoming just one of four indispensable but equal parts in a perpetual motion machine that steadily built in intensity from the opening "Our Time" (another carpe diem manifesto from the 2007 EP "Read & Burn 03," featuring the key lines: "The time is right, the time is wrong/The time, it comes and then is gone") to the finale of "12XU," the signature song of '77, which closed the third encore.
Delivered at triple the speed, "12XU" was barely recognizable from the version on "Pink Flag" 31 years ago. But that was the point: Like the entire show, it was 100-percent Wire, and it was 100-percent alive and undeniable in the here and now.
Colin Newman; photo by Oscar Lopez for the Sun-Times