I saw Mission of Burma last night at the 9:30 Club in DC. I will try to refrain from too much gushing during this recap, but it will be difficult - it was definitely the best show I've ever attended and an incredible evening that even exceeded the high expectations I had beforehand.
The first opening act was The Hiss. If you've ever wondered to yourself, "Would the Strokes be better if they had a lead singer who sounded like the frontman of a third string arena rock group from the 70s and a drummer who overplayed and inserted the same extraneous fills into every song?" the answer is no, no they wouldn't.
The Fiery Furnaces came out next. I already liked them on the strength of last year's Gallowsbird's Bark and their upcoming album Blueberry Boat (the best album I've heard yet this year, by far), but this set gave me a whole new appreciation for them. I had read that they tended to play much faster live than on the albums, but I wasn't prepared for the all-out intensity of their set - all of the arrangements were at least twice as fast (the "I'm Gonna Run/Leaky Tunnel" section sounded like a hardcore punk cover), while Eleanor Friedberger spat out the words to each song with feverish intensity. They played for roughly 45 minutes solid without stopping for space (or breath), incorporating about 15 songs in what was essentially a long medley of their catalog to date. Even the drummer (who looked suspiciously like a young David Lee Roth) breaking a snare couldn't slow them down. It says something about the strength of the Friedbergers' songwriting that the set was just as enjoyable as their albums even with the massive restructuring of the arrangements. And judging from the genuinely exuberant reception they received at the end and wowed reactions of the people around me, they made a lot of new converts last night.
Finally, what we all came for. What more can I say about the greatness of Mission of Burma? The band was in incredible form - just as tight live as on record, and Roger Miller's explosive yet carefully controlled guitar chaos was particularly inspired during the show. The songs from their new album onOFFon were integrated into the playlist well, "The Setup" and "The Enthusiast" were particular highlights of the show. But, let's face it - most of us were there because their classic albums Signals, Calls and Marches and Vs. blew the tops of our heads open and we wanted to hear those songs live. The benefit of Mission of Burma's 20 year hiatus was that they haven't gotten sick of playing the standards - they sounded spirited on every one they tackled, and the enthusiasm of Miller and Clint Conley was infectious. There's something that's still awe-inspiring about seeing a great performance of one of your favorite songs performed live by the original band, and I had that feeling at least six or seven times during the course of the evening. (The only downside was that they didn't do "Einstein's Day," which is probably my favorite Burma song and one of my favorite songs by anyone ever. But they played everything else I needed to hear and a killer cover of the Wipers' "Youth of America" to boot.) Even the usually reserved DC crowds were hopping up and down and chanting along to "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate" and "Academy Fight Song." All in all, a great experience. I'm not sure how many bands could've taken a 20 year break and then come back and match their old form, but Mission of Burma have managed to pull it off.