- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

The old guys looked pretty limber for such an advanced age.

Rocket From the Tombs, Cleveland’s jumping-off point for most of that city’s punk-rock legacy, played the Black Cat Sunday evening with a vigor by turns intense and raucous.

Rocket spawned pioneering punk and avant-garde bands the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu after forming as a joke in 1974. Its members were five aesthetically wiped out guys from the industrial Midwest whose best way to cope with the uncertainty of life was to make a din that would merge their love of hard rock with their worship of experimental icons such as Can and the Soft Machine.

The band’s revival earlier this year also was a lark, as some of the original members pulled in a couple of friends for a one-time gig that morphed into a tour and recording session that wrought the band’s first studio recordings, to be released in February as “Rocket Redux.”

Old pal guitarist Richard Lloyd (Television) joined original members Dave Thomas (Pere Ubu), guitarist Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys) and bassist Craig Bell for this year’s jaunt through America.

Most of them are in their 50s, a little past prime age for punk rock. Or so one would have thought.

“One of the things about getting old is that you are free to do what you want,” Mr. Thomas says in an interview with The Washington Times. “I always wanted to be old. You aren’t constricted by whether this is the cool thing or not.

“I would put Rocket From the Tombs up against any sniveling, pimple-faced band of the current era,” he continues. “People know better than to be nostalgic with me.”

Mr. Thomas, balding and possessed of a massive girth, looks every bit the curmudgeonly professor.

He meandered onstage Sunday in a rumpled gray suit coat over a black shirt and black jeans, his unshaved face crunched into a permafrown. During the 11-song set, Mr. Thomas sometimes would plunk down in a chair onstage as the band played, taking an occasional nip from a flask he kept in his jacket pocket.

The rest of the band carried on like pros who have fought the musical war of poverty and have no reservations about coming back for more. Mr. Chrome and Mr. Lloyd traded guitar lines with knowing nods, both using the same tones that later made them legends with their own bands.

Sunday’s 11-song set was a traipse through musical history, a lesson for some and a welcome rehash for others. The wiry guitar line to “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” throbbed. The faux maudlin “Ain’t It Fun,” made infamous by the Dead Boys and covered by Guns N’ Roses, sounded brand-new. Even the tired anthem “Sonic Reducer” flared with a new fury.

These are songs that immortalized Rocket in some quarters but made little dent in even the most rarefied precincts of the avant-garde music culture of the mid-‘70s, when non-corporate music was just beginning to be taken seriously.

Rocket From the Tombs played about a dozen shows in its first incarnation, gigs that impressed most of its peers and provided fodder for an underground legacy that would span a lifetime.

When the band broke up in 1975 because of terminal conflicts, it already was cast as one of those influential, visionary outfits that foreshadow change and progress in pop music.

A tour and an album usually mean a future even on the margins of the music world, but Mr. Thomas is still weighing whether the group will stay together after the tour ends in Nashville, Tenn., Dec. 17.

“You don’t get a shot at such devastatingly hard rocking bands like this in your life,” he says. “Bands that are up on two wheels and smoking, so I could not walk away from it when we got together earlier this year. But now we have to make a decision whether we want to continue.”

Opening for Rocket was the seriously seedy Thee Snuff Project. The local outfit smashed through a set of ragged bursts of noise, taking the traditional guitar-bass-drums-vocalist and injecting it with a bad attitude, some intoxication and smart songs.

Fifteen years ago, the band would have been on the AmRep label. In the decidedly un-rock District, it stands out as unaffected by trends and content to make a racket.

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