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Pop Music Review

Clash's Strummer Tests '90s Waters in Spirited Show

July 09, 1999|RICHARD CROMELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

New bands keep coming along and making a good living from music that's essentially reheated Clash, so why shouldn't one of the originators get a piece of the action?

That wasn't exactly the aim when Joe Strummer ended a long missing-in-action period with a concert at the Palace on Wednesday, but there was a liberating note of vindication--an unspoken declaration of "here's the real stuff"--when he and his new band served up "London Calling," "Straight to Hell" and several other touchstones of the Clash, the landmark band Strummer co-piloted through the turbulent punk era.

But it wasn't nostalgia night. Strummer, who's been little heard from since the Clash ended in 1985, is finally getting back into gear, with an album planned for fall release by L.A.'s Epitaph Records. So at the Palace show--part of a brief, testing-the-waters U.S. tour--the Englishman was undertaking the always tricky balancing act of pushing new music on an audience that came to hear old favorites. Some fans were even armed with cardboard signs bearing their song requests.

But Strummer has earned a rare degree of loyalty and respect from his audience, a fact evident in the attention they paid to unfamiliar songs. And Strummer and his young players, tentative and indistinct at first, eventually rewarded that attention with some intense instrumental interplay.

The new music gathers and extends some of the Clash's strands, notably reggae and funk, and gives them a polyrhythmic push. Strummer's raspy voice has grown huskier (he often sounded like one of his early models, Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter), making some of the words hard to catch. But if the show didn't precisely map his current direction, it did summon the right spirit, and it showed that his ability to simultaneously challenge and comfort remains undimmed.

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