Band reunion tours have become big business in the past few years, but generally, the groups in question had hits or a large following in their time. Mission of Burma — considered by some to be the father of indie rock — had neither. While the band was enormously popular in its hometown of Boston, it wasn’t well known much outside of a rarified underground circuit that would not fully develop until Burma disbanded and was semi-replaced by another guitar-driven, psychedelically influenced American group, R.E.M. Twenty years later, the trio (augmented by tape loop operator Bob Weston) and their legend have grown to the point where the band is playing theaters worldwide, as the members’ schedules and health allow.
Rumbling, angular and distinctly early ’80s (as with Joy Division or Gang of Four, the bass carries most of their melody), the trio opened the first of two short sets with “Playland” and proceeded through most of their recorded material (available reissued on Rykodisc), including the band’s two underground “hits,” “Academy Fight Song” and “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” which have been covered by R.E.M. and Moby, respectively. Because of guitarist Roger Miller’s severe ear damage (cited as the primary reason that the group disbanded in 1983), the setup was very odd, with Miller playing behind his amp and drummer Peter Prescott cordoned off behind Plexiglas.
As with many reunited bands, the musicianship has not only aged well but improved; indeed, Prescott, a hit-or-miss drummer 20 years ago, has become a real powerhouse, and as a result, Burma sometimes approached the sheer raw power of the Who at its best.
Unlike that venerable band, Burma has no lead singer or front man, but on the encores, the three were joined by ex-Minuteman Mike Watt for a version of the Stooges’ “1970.” Watt opened the show with an organist and drummer and basically soloed nonstop on his bass through his set, albeit with great skill and energy.
Second act Silkworm was less impressive, offering generic mid-tempo “alternative” with a slight country lilt and awful lyrics. Perhaps sharing the bill with these great craftsmen of the pounding rock song will rub off on the band in a positive way.