In 2020, Wayne Kramer found himself in a funk. Frustrated by the Trump presidency, upset by the COVID-19 pandemic, he was grumpy about the American situation.
This is how the Detroit-born guitarist says he turned to “the biggest megaphone” in his arsenal: the MC5.
Half a century after the late Detroit rock band disbanded, Kramer has reignited the MC5 brand as he embarks on a spring tour and album slated for release in October.
“I have concluded that the only way to militantly challenge my own apathy, my own nihilism, my own cynicism is to take direct ethical and creative action and use the most powerful tool I have. I have, which is my imagination and my creativity,” says Kramer. .
Kramer, one of two surviving members of MC5’s original main lineup, will kick off his eight-show series, dubbed the Heavy Lifting Tour, with a show Thursday at Detroit’s El Club – just around the corner from his childhood neighborhood of Clark Park.
He will be joined by vocalist Brad Brooks, bassist Vicki Randle and guitarist Stevie Salas, as well as drummer Winston Watson, who replaces drummer originally named Stephen Perkins. The show will mostly feature vintage MC5 material, with a few new songs added as an “acid test”, says Kramer.
In reviving the MC5 name, Kramer says he is “using this band’s legacy to deliver a message to people today, which MC5 has carried since its inception: we need to take action.”
“You know, we don’t distribute the jams. We do not distribute jams. We eliminate jams. It’s a physical thing,” he says. “And democracy requires participation. The forces we are fighting against, I will call them what they are: fascists.
It’s a brand of rhetoric that dates back to 1968, that tumultuous pivotal year when MC5’s agenda included a one-day performance amid the chaotic scenes outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
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The new project follows Kramer’s MC50 adventure, launched in 2018 with an all-star band to relive the music of the MC5 – including a trio of Halloween week shows in Detroit marking the 50th anniversary of “Kick Out the Jams”.
This debut album, recorded in October 1968 at the Grande Ballroom, was the first of three records by the incendiary quintet with incendiary leftist politics. Combining Detroit muscle with free jazz and R&B influences, the Downriver-born band had a brief but lasting impact before collapsing into a heap of drug addiction and busted finances.
The Five, as they are colloquially known to hometown fans, never achieved the big breakthrough the band had been striving for. Even in 2022, respect can seem elusive: On Wednesday, MC5 again failed to make the winner’s circle when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame unveiled its latest inductees – a botched sixth nomination for the band.
But Kramer knows there’s substance to go with the spirit, and he says this year’s effort aims to pick up where MC5’s 1971 swan song left off.
“(The album) ‘High Time’ held great promise for the future of this iteration of the MC5, which ultimately didn’t have a future,” he says. “We were so poor. We were banned from the radio. We couldn’t get reservations. It’s really hard to keep a band together when there’s no money coming in.
The good news, he says: With age comes improvement, and Kramer is confident he’s able to create art in ways he couldn’t for himself 50 years ago.
“Music is not related to youth,” he says. “Young people carry most of the weight in music, but older people have more money to spend, they have more influence, they know more about how things work. You can become more passionate about music, better at playing guitar, writing songs, arranging, recording, performing, none of these things are related to youth.
What became the new MC5 project originally came to life as a songwriting collaboration with Brooks, a singer and musician from Oakland, California. Kramer has also teamed up with veteran rock producer Bob Ezrin, with whom he had recently spent time in the studio collaborating on Alice Cooper’s “Detroit Stories” album.
As the music took shape, Kramer had his revelation: the album had to be presented in an MC5 context.
“The more we worked on it, the more I absorbed the world around me, the clearer it became that you couldn’t separate the artist from his time and the world he lives in,” says Kramer. “The situation was so serious.”
Harnessing the MC5 name and motto for his latest project was bound to ruffle some feathers, and sure enough, Kramer’s plans received a cold reception in some corners of the Detroit rock world. This is a band, after all, that broke up in 1972 and lost three leaders over the following decades: vocalist Rob Tyner died in 1991, followed by guitarist Fred Smith (1994) and bassist Michael Davis ( 2012). In Detroit, there’s a sense of protection when it comes to the MC5 heritage.
Kramer and drummer Dennis Thompson — who will feature on at least two of the new album’s tracks — are the band’s only surviving originals.
Kramer is aware of the pushback and said he anticipated it. But he insists moving forward was important in the service of the larger cause.
“My feeling is if you don’t want to be criticized, don’t do anything,” he says. “If you’re going to do something, if you’re going to act, then you’re going to be criticized. You just have to accept that it comes with the territory.
He points to the slogan accompanying the tour and the album: “WE ARE ALL MC5”. It’s a message, he says, designed to evoke a sense of unity and inclusiveness in his mission. He cites the range of players involved in new music – Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, William Duvall of Alice in Chains, Tim McIlrath of Rise Against, pop singer Kesha and roots-punk musician Alejandro Escovedo among them.
Beyond his MC5 efforts, Kramer continues his work with Jail Guitar Doors, the nonprofit prison outreach program he co-founded in 2009, including his new initiative for young people – the CAPO Center (Community Arts , Programming and Outreach) – which recently opened in its adopted Los Angeles home.
He also kept busy with the film and television composition work that has become a major activity over the past decade, including his score for the award-winning 2018 Red Wings documentary “The Russian Five.” His current work includes the score for the upcoming documentary “Coldwater Kitchen” — directed by Freep’s Brian Kaufman and former food critic Mark Kurylandchik — and a drama set in 1930s Germany.
Some rock musicians become more conservative as they age; Kramer’s close friend, fellow Detroit guitarist Ted Nugent, is a perfect example. But the MC5 co-founder, who turned 74 last week, says his political sensibility remains unchanged.
“It’s important for me to be aware of the day, to understand why the world is doing what it’s doing today,” he says. ” How did we get there ? Where could we go? It is infinitely fascinating. me and they are eternal.”
Contact Detroit Free Press Music Writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or email@example.com.
MC5 (with Wayne Kramer)
With Masha Marjieh and Sugar Tradition
7 p.m. Thursday
4144 Vernor Highway, Detroit