Written by: Paul Gleason
At 10:45 PM on June 8, 2013, The Stranglers attacked the stage of Chicago’s Cobra Lounge with all the purpose and menace that indicated what those of us gathered before the tiny stage in an excited heap knew already – namely, that the legendary quartet was just as thrilled as we were that they were touring America after an absence of over twenty years.
Black-clad, inspired, and looking every inch the legends they are, The Stranglers proceeded to launch into an energetic set of fast-paced, punk-inspired rock and roll. The guys never let up and played almost 90 minutes of powerful music that took over your body and made it impossible not to move to the riffs and rhythms.
Guitarist-singer Baz Warne – who’s been with the Stranglers for 13 years now – fronted the band, taking the lead vocals founding member Hugh Cornwell used to sing. His between-song banter exuded positivity, humor, and goodwill. At one point, as he and bassist-singer JJ Burnel (an original member of the band and, if truth be told, their driving source) grabbed towels and mopped off each other’s sweaty pates, they made their brotherhood at the front of the stage obvious to all.
Warne provided other endearing moments. He held up a sign proclaiming “Blackhawks Win,” when the Chicago-based NHL franchise defeated the Los Angeles Kings to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. And he surprised us all when, at one point, he stepped off the stage to perform among the audience.
But Warne’s singing and guitar playing were what we were all there to see, and he excelled at both, burning up the stage with jaw-dropping renditions of Stranglers’ classics new and old. As he sang and riffed on “(Get a Grip) Grip (On Yourself),” “Peaches,” “Burning Up Time,” and “Nuclear Device,” The Stranglers reminded their fans both of the utter innovation of the Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes, and The Raven LPs while simultaneously convincing them that these songs retain a powerful verve that make them timeless in their live incarnation. And when Warne stepped up to the mic to handle “Mercury Rising” – the single from Giants, the band’s most recent record – the vigor just didn’t let up.
Burnel sang fewer songs than I expected, but his melodic bass playing, unsurprisingly, was on the money all night. And when he took the occasional lead vocal – as he did on “Freedom Is Insane” – he revealed what we Stranglers’ freaks know and love about his intelligence and musicianship.
Keyboardist Dave Greenfield is still the Yoda of his instrument, and he proved yet again that he’s one of the best and most underrated players on the planet. It’s silly and ineffective to focus on individual songs when discussing Greenfield because he turned every number into a veritable punk rock symphony. His playing was so wizardly that once in a while he drank from whatever filled his plastic red cup as he played some of the most complex keyboard parts I’d ever heard.
By the time The Stranglers got to “No More Heroes” – what could be their greatest song – at the end of the show, they’d convinced everyone at the Cobra that they’re not only a legendary band of yesterday but also one of the best bands of today. Every note that they played would have made their ailing and absent drummer Jet Black – the man whom Burnel has christened “the soul of The Stranglers” – beam with pride.