The B-52’s – With the Wild Crowd!

Somewhere in our universal past we recall a bouffant-haired teacher scowling at an unruly student, “This is going on your permanent record.” On Valentine’s Day 2011, 34 years after their first show, the B-52’s came home to Athens to recite their enduring and endearing portfolio into the permanent record.

The B-52’s by now have insouciantly produced decades of unique and imaginative work. They did it their way, period.

Conventional wisdom would have the B’s summarized as a “one-hit-wonder ’80s party band crankin’ out the New Wave oldies.” After all, when a Pandora playlist is requested around the B-52’s, the second artist the software algorithm plays is…. Billy Idol.

Whaa??? (It’s true.)

As for hits, after “Rock Lobster” what is there? Oh right, “Love Shack.” And “Roam.” And “Private Idaho.” And “Deadbeat Club.” And “Cosmic Thing.” Oh, and Funplex, their recent CD full of, well, non-oldies, that reached number 11 on Billboard’s top album chart, the second-highest charting album of their career.

With The Wild Crowd! Live in Athens, GA is both a concert DVD and live CD release, and both faithfully document a universe of playful, surreal aural sculpture. It shows the B’s have always been iconoclastic harbingers of nothing in particular. They take their lunacy very seriously, and the result is a set that is tight, colorful, and fun. The DVD features 21 succinct tracks presented in the order they were played that night, with no re-sequencing (other than cutting “Quiche Lorraine” at the 1-hour point for unknown reasons.) The CD, limited to 70 minutes, cuts three more tracks.

The DVD production is an accurate capture – a TV show, no more and no less. While crisp and well paced, there is little innovation to the HDTV editing/switching, and no atmospheric effects. I would have preferred faster cutting and more variation of shots, but taping a live show in HD costs a small fortune and, face it, in 2012 people just buy a few DVDs, and barely any CDs at all.

But on this night, the band is blazing and charismatic. The live mix mostly glistens, especially highlighting the unique and never-stronger harmony between Kate and Cindy. They still really belt ‘em out. Keith’s guitar, however, is at times a bit buried. Fred fares better on the CD compared to the DVD, where he spends the first 15 minutes looking like he’d rather be somewhere else. Considering this near-Felliniesque circus has been on the road since “Disco Duck” was a hit, I’ll cut him some slack.

The home crowd is ecstatic and fawning, cheering on name-dropped hangouts from another era in “Roam” and “Hot Corner.” Looking back, there seemed to be no real precedent for the Athens music explosion of the late ’70s, other than a spontaneous combustion of free ideas and free spirits. It was as if an occult hand led the five friends to the infamous Chinese restaurant (Hunan’s on Baxter St., recently closed) for a flaming-volcano drink-a-thon in 1976… which launched an all night jam… which started 36 years of the B-52’s.  “We’ll dance in the garden in torn sheets / In the rain…”

The B’s have never been about deconstructing tracks live  – no extended solos or jams, no “Variations On a Theme Of Whammy” here. If “Rock Lobster” was 6:50 on the first LP in 1980, it is 6:00 in concert in 2012  – a touch tighter! There’s something reassuring to this ritual. The band so carefully crafted each song in the studio – seemingly with no overthink and no second-guessing – and now the tracks are locked. It’s that permanent record thing again.

One nice surprise on the DVD is a 33-minute bonus interview/documentary, shot and lit C-SPAN style, with the band relaxed on four chairs in the empty theater. With a wealth of vintage photos and ephemera, their entire story arc is presented. Their remembrances of Ricky Wilson, the band’s founder who died of AIDS in 1986, are eloquent and touching… yet full of smiles. There is a warmth and camaraderie to these veterans of a thousand gigs – from dive clubs to stadia – as they crack each other up and finish each other’s sentences. Their shared joy of musical self-expression keeps them going despite persistent rumors each tour will be the last.

With one foot in the retro past and one foot in the space-age future, there’s an unalterable timelessness to their body of work… an art-damaged soundscape both nostalgic and prescient.

The bonus feature has an option for French subtitles if you wish. “Athènes la Géorgie est ma ville natale. C’était une ville universitaire calme, très calme.”

Remember that.

The B-52’s
With The Wild Crowd! Live in Athens, GA
[Eagle Rock]