Sonic Flashback: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros (July 2, 2002, House of Blues)

Joe Strummer, pictured here a month before his Vegas appearance.
Dennis Mitchell

When the Sex Pistols and The Clash first started scolding society for its complacency, the urgency of their message was slow to arrive stateside. That changed for many of us when those two bands’ songs finally had a chance to sink in by way of record stores and cool radio stations.

I enjoyed the arc of The Clash’s existence to the fullest, attending the group’s first-and last-ever U.S. concerts featuring Mick Jones, with a few breathtaking, high-octane performances in between. I watched as chairs flew in Berkeley in 1979 during The Clash’s American debut, then stood in stunned silence with thousands of partiers at the second US Festival four years later, as Joe Strummer ranted against American capitalism between songs.

In the years after the band’s breakup, Jones experienced continued success at the head of Big Audio Dynamite, with “The Globe” and “Rush” leaving an indelible stamp on early-’90s radio. Meanwhile, after an agonizing attempt to continue The Clash following Jones’ departure, Strummer produced a few obscure film soundtracks and lent songs to the Sid Vicious movie Sid and Nancy. He continued his collaboration with Jones, co-writing most of the material on BAD’s second album, and stayed busy through the 1990s mostly as a producer. Eventually Strummer formed the multi-talented Mescaleros with a few of his soundtrack partners, along with session players. First solo effort Earthquake Weather had fallen way short of expectations in 1989, so it was good to hear songs that reflected a new energy. The Mescaleros started touring regularly in 1999, hitting Vegas for the first time in 2002.

Having left an old-fashioned Fourth of July block party in time to make the show at House of Blues, a friend and I quickly found good standing room on the floor. Looking robust and happy, Strummer and his band blasted through about a hundred minutes, featuring a generous sampling of The Mescaleros’ three albums without straying far from Clash favorites. The setlist included “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” “Police and Thieves,” “Rudie Can’t Fail” and a fired-up “Police on My Back.”

The Mescaleros created a different kind of sound behind Strummer—a tight, sharp backing for what were originally three-chord punk tunes. They quietly switched instruments through the performance, so unassuming, we wondered if anyone else even noticed.

I’ve always found it a bit curious that Strummer played Las Vegas, considering The Clash never did. I still shake my head that we lost him a few months later, but how lucky we were to hear him scold us one last time.

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