Rocket From the Tombs at the Empty Bottle

This is one of the most unlikely reunions in the long history of rock ‘n’ roll reunions. Rocket From the Tombs was a short-lived protopunk band in Cleveland in 1975 that broke up before releasing a record. Barely anyone heard Rocket From the Tombs, and barely anyone had heard of them. But the former members of Rocket formed a couple of other famous bands, Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys. And some of the early songs they played with those bands had actually begun as Rocket From the Tombs tunes.

All of this was an interesting but obscure footnote in rock history until Smog Veil Records released the band’s long-forgotten rehearsal tapes and some live recordings in 2003. Rocket From the Tombs reunited, with legendary Television guitarist Richard Lloyd taking over for the late Peter Laughner. In 2004, the new lineup of the band finally recorded studio versions of those songs from three decades earlier. And most of us figured that was the end of that.

But Rocket From the Tombs reconvened this year, releasing an unexpected album of new songs, Bar Fly, and heading out on tour once again, including a stop Wednesday night (Dec. 7) at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. The current roster comprises David Thomas, Cheetah Chrome, Craig Bell, Steve Mehlman and Richard Lloyd. The show got started with strong opening sets of power pop by Warm Ones and reverb-drenched psychedelic noise rock by Plastic Crimewave Sound.

Pere Ubu’s mad genius weirdo, Thomas, sings most of RFTT’s songs, too, and he dominated the center of the stage, standing mostly still in a long trench coat. “Punk rock,” he grumbled at the start of the show, as he took out his reading glasses and began peering at lyrics sheets. Thomas can get cantankerous, and he showed a bit of that crankiness Wednesday, cutting off one song when he was unhappy with the shaky start it got from the band, insisting that the band forget playing it altogether. Despite that moment, there were only a few times when RFTT sounded rusty. More often, the band cranked out great guitar riffs, sounding like Pere Ubu’s punk-rock cousins. The new songs were good, but it was the old classics that the crowd really wanted to hear, and RFTT delivered, with strong renditions of “Amphetamine,” “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Sonic Reducer.”

Plastic Crimewave Sound

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