Gates of the West: Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of ‘London Calling’
photo credit: Kirstin Bonning
It was the night to remember it aspired to be at a sold-out Roxy on the Sunset Strip. Welcoming an announced lineup of special guests, plus a surprise or two, veteran rocker Jesse Malin and his band exactingly and inspiringly paid homage to The Clash’s London Calling album on its 40th birthday. Across three hours of music, the numerous passionate performances not only covered the iconic record in sequence, but lent plenty of tributes to The Clash leader Joe Strummer and his band’s enduring catalog, as well.
The music began early, just after 8 pm, with a short acoustic set from the Circle Jerks’ (and Strummer collaborator) Zander Schloss that included The Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” and continued in contrast with a raucous appearance from The Walker Roaders. Invoking the unflagging spirit of Celtic punk, the group, featuring Pogues’ multi-instrumentalist James Fearnley, charged through a furious support set. Starting with a nod to those in Australia stricken by the wildfire disaster, they offered The Pogues’ “South Australia” in respect, playing tenaciously to a capacity crowd anxious for the main event.
After a brief intermission, the curtain rose on Malin leading his assembled ensemble, as guest Chuck Prophet struck the iron first on the album’s signature title track, staying remarkably true to the classic cut’s insistent tempo and taut arrangement. It was a harbinger for the evening, as each singer invited onstage did notably well to capture the cadence and gravitas essential to each vocal, particularly on this collection of tracks so varied in style and attitude. Marquee guests such as Jakob Dylan- on “Brand New Cadillac”- or Guns N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan- on “Clampdown”- were expected, and expectedly terrific in their performances that came early in the show. Yet, there were the unexpected, and equally sharp, visits from actor and musician Fred Armisen, of Saturday Night Live and Portlandia fame, handling Mick Jones’ introspective angst on “Lost in the Supermarket” genuinely and without irony, and Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando sliding onstage somewhat inconspicuously, joining John Kastner for “The Right Profile.”
The album is a massive one- 19 songs- and guests arriving and departing for each cameo created an ongoing sense of anticipation that didn’t cease even after Butch Walker ignited the furious “Train in Vain” album finale. Although well-intentioned, a final set of performances- a hodgepodge of Clash/Strummer tracks- felt slightly anti-climactic. Yet, as a culmination for this concert benefitting the Joe Strummer Foundation, and Music and Memory, it was home to the two best non-album rave-ups; first as MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer crunched through “Jail Guitar Doors,” (a 1977 Clash song written about Kramer’s arrest) and the closing cover of “I Fought the Law,” highlighted by the combustible duo of Walker and McKagan.
In all, the rendering of London Calling was the deserved star of the show. There was a time, decades ago, when The Clash was known as the only band that mattered. Malin, in his conscientious effort to gather together a blend of musicians that left the egos at home and gave it all to the cause, demonstrated again how much the music still matters.