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Years of government persecution and jail time got Prague's Plastic People of the Universe recognized, but it's the new wrinkle they carved out of rock that's made them legends for 30 years now. Sure, they worshiped the Mothers of Invention and Velvet Underground early on, but their sound has always been their own: eerie, leaden, full of absurdity.
When Vaclav Havel called the Plastics together for a celebration of Charter 77 (the Czech Declaration of Independence) in January '97, the group had to put aside years of bitterness. They'd split up in 1987, after the Communist regime offered to let them play a show if they used a different name--some agreed while others refused to knuckle under. Certain members regrouped as Pulnoc soon after, but even with Western major label support and deserved hype, personnel changes took their toll on that band, too. Musical director and founder Milan Hlavsa next started re-recording old Plastics material with a new outfit, Friction. But after the reunion show, the Plastics began touring again. As an added boost, Globus International undertook an ambitious program of reissuing their long-out-of-print studio titles (which were only released in the West) and a number of concert albums.
At their American debut last Saturday, arranged by Tamizdat, a local organization promoting Czech culture, the Plastics had a problem--how can a band make music from decades ago still come off as fresh, especially when it was so depressing to begin with? The Plastics' sound was always dour and foreboding, with lyrics (all in Czech) to match from poet Egon Bondy. You got enough alcohol and despair to fill up a blues or country album and appropriately bitter, disgusted singing to go with it. Couched in this misery was also a certain resolve and existential sardonicism--they found their lives not so much hard as laughably insane.
The Plastics today are a lot different, and not just because they have access to decent equipment. They've really become a rock band, thanks to the Pulnoc experience, drummer Jan Brebec driving the band with an array of funky rhythms, and new guitarist Joe Karafiat spewing out bluesy, wailing solos. Sax player--lyricist Vratislav Brabenec announced the songs like a dotty, fun-loving old man, but when it was time to take a solo, he screamed and leaned his body into it. He provided the stage presence along with Hlavsa, who bent his knees, thrust his shoulders, and twisted his face as he spit out the words. Slamming, crunching metal riffs went along with the sweeping violin and saxophone passages, sort of like prime King Crimson.
They certainly excited the half-capacity crowd, a good mix of three generations of fans with a solid Czech contingent. Judging by the recorded evidence--the early albums, the legendary Pulnoc show at P.S.122 (now out on Globus), and the recent Czech shows (also on a Globus CD called 1997, and recorded last November)-- the Plastics have only become a more exciting and powerful band:faster, funkier, louder, tighter.
Though the Irving Plaza set list nearly duplicated 1997 (drawn mostly from the '74-75 Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned and the '84 Hovezi porazka), it was still a thing of wonder to hear them utterly transform and re-create their old classics. They chanted "Elegie," a two-line poem about visiting a mother's grave, like an army troop--this was reprised for an encore because, as Vratislav put it, "we don't know any more songs! We're lazy Slavs!" A jazzy groove hardly hinted at the subject of "Zapca," which describes constipation in excruciating detail. A crunching metal riff introduced "Nikdo" as violinist Jiri Kabes repeated "nobody," "no one" with disgust. "Spatna vec" was remade into a speed demon, sounding like an early X-Ray Spex tune. Hlavsa switched gears to do a Lou Reed impression on "Sweet Jane" for one of the encores. Even the slower songs in the middle of the set ("Okolo okna," "Spofa blues") had an eerie, gripping atmosphere. And the set finale, "Magicke noci," was a real roof-tearer, featuring the vocals of Hlavsa's old friend Pavel Zajicek from the band DG-307, along with New York guitarist Gary Lucas.
Still, the future of the band is a big question mark. A fall tour of the States is in the works, but new material--none was offered at Irving Plaza--is going to be a problem. Hlavsa is interested in drum 'n' bass while the others lean toward free jazz, Celtic music, and the older Plastics style. Let's hope that, after 20 years of state oppression and another decade of bad blood, the usual "musical differences" don't put an end to them again.