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Despite critiques of any new albums as miles out of view of prior greatness, and tours as survivalist cash grabs, you have to show some respect to old-and-in-the-way classic rockers still out to make a living. Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, and their surviving (!) bandmates are just barely on the right side of 70; Steven Tyler and Ozzy Osbourne are only a few years behind them. The monsters of ’60s and early ’70s rock still bring the noise for millions of dollars and people, even if the shaking and shimmying on stage is a little slower. Slowly, we’re realizing that artists who followed them and rebelled in their shadow—music’s punks, post-punks, and new romantics—are neither above similar business tactics nor lacking in similar energy.
Not content to just embrace the recent trend of musicians playing full albums front to back live, British agit-poppers Gang of Four tapped into the goodwill of their fanbase by enlisting their financial support in producing a new 2011 album, Content, then announced a tour behind it. To be fair, this lineup is really just the “Gang of Two” of original singer Jon King and original guitarist Andy Gill, with a five-year-old rhythm section of Thomas McNeice (bass) and Mark Heaney (drums). Still, Gill and King are both in their mid-50s, and whether propelled by new angular rhythms or not there should be no good reason for them to churn through a night of sociopolitical rock.
Yet here they are, at Philadelphia’s Theatre of Living Arts playing the second date and first U.S. show of the Content tour, and apparently there are indeed good reasons for a powerful set. Three songs deep, King professes to the crowd his love for the city, professionally and creatively kind to him more than three decades ago. And frankly, there are still enough worldly concerns involving interpersonal angst and the machinations of business and government that songs like “Not Great Men” and “You’ll Never Pay for the Farm” feel as relevant in this era of President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron as they might have felt during the days of Carter and Thatcher.
Reaching as far back as both sides of their debut single, “Damaged Goods” and “(Love Like) Anthrax,” and looking ahead with new work like set closer “Do as I Say,” Gill and King swap stage positions and microphones all night, performing with energy usually reserved for players half their age. And speak of the devil: McNeice and Heaney, the band’s youth movement, sharpen and polish the night’s razor edge of music from their Content contributions like “A Fruitfly in the Beehive” through evening finale “Natural’s Not in It.”
The band’s performance ensures their classy grown-up threads and onstage white wine don’t fool fans. During one song Gill jackhammers his guitar into the floor, as if chipping away at ice on the frigid Philly sidewalks, then tosses it across the stage in King’s direction. King picks it up, bangs it a few times himself, then throws it back at Gill. Gill looks at it with disdain for a few seconds, its feedback ringing through the venue, then chooses to reach for his beer instead. The crowd goes nuts—the moment and the night may be long ago and far away from their origins, but they show that Gang of Four can still pull off post-punk cynicism in arresting fashion.