ArtsFuse Rock Concert Review: Willie Alexander’s 81st Birthday Bash — Exceeding Expectations

Paul Robicheau, ArtsFuse


January 15, 2024

ArtsFuse Rock Concert Review: Willie Alexander’s 81st Birthday Bash — Exceeding Expectations

By Paul Robicheau

The godfather of Boston punk drew a who’s who of local rock history to a new music club on Cape Ann.

Willie Alexander with Mission of Burnham at the Cut. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Gloucester music club the Cut could not have planned a better grand opening than Saturday’s 81st birthday celebration for Willie Alexander, the godfather of Boston punk who drew a who’s who of local rock history to his Cape Ann digs.

Jenny Dee at the Cut. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Named after a nearby water crossing, the Cut impressed as a high-ceilinged, 500-capacity “glam-industrial” room with tiered edges and both great sound and sightlines. But Alexander’s birthday bash (held a year after he had Covid when he turned 80) further exceeded expectations, thanks in part to smartly placed, tightly scheduled musical guests curated by his photographer wife Annie Rearick.

Fans — lined up early for limited at-door-only tickets — likely wondered whether bands would play Alexander’s classics or their own but were rewarded with one of each from most of the performers. And the wild-haired Alexander’s own appearances were nicely scattered across the four-hour show.

One of the most eagerly awaited outfits was Mission of Burnham, an ad-hoc trio of guitarist Roger Miller and bassist Clint Conley from the defunct Mission of Burma and Gloucester-based drummer Hugh Burnham from the British post-punk pioneers Gang of Four. Alexander fronted the group to rattle off the vocals to his “Hit Her Wit de Axe,” then Burnham’s daughter Ts supported Miller on vocals for a solid pump through Burma’s “Fame and Fortune.”

David Minehan of the Neighborhoods at the Cut Photo: Paul Robicheau

Alexander also emerged to bang his sticker-encrusted electronic piano to “Gourmet Baby” with the Neighborhoods, whose David Minehan called him a “gateway drug to a kid out of the suburbs.” The animated singer/guitarist lent a jolt, backed by the band’s 1979 Rumble-winning lineup of drummer Michael Quaglia and bassist John Hartcorn. Minehan planted a kiss on Alexander’s check, yelled “It’s all your fault!” and the band ripped into “Innocence Lost.”

The guest of honor also featured two of his past groups, the first one coming within the show’s first hour — after an opening stretch by the Richie Parsons Band (including Human Sexual Response drummer Malcolm Travis), the Darlings’ acoustic Simon Ritt and Kelly Knapp (who bit into the dangers of Alexander’s “Gin”) and the gritty rock of Classic Ruins. After singer Andrea Gillis’ turn, Alexander invited her to stay out and channel “Like Trash” while he sprayed piano over the rolling drums and tenor sax of his avant-garde Persistence of Memory Orchestra. A later run focused on his rocking Boom Boom Band. Guest singers included Fox Pass’ charged-up Jon Macey, Kenne Highland (who led the crowd in choruses of “Let’s go to the Rat” in recognition of that club) and Dave Sag before Alexander took the mic for “Home Is” and “Rock & Roll ’78,” in his element while Billy Loosigian squeezed guitar leads.

Other ’70s old-timers (though Alexander goes back to the Boston Tea Party in the late ’60s) resurfaced in rockers Reddy Teddy, saluting “Cape Cod Friends” with Erik Lindgren swiping away at Alexander’s keyboard, a contrast to Rick Berlin’s more bittersweet soliloquy at the keys just before.

But a real blast from the past came when mercurial Real Kids frontman John Felice showed up with his former Modern Lovers bandmate David Robinson (who found fame in the Cars) and bashed out “Roadrunner” before the band cranked the Real Kids’ “Who Needs You,” Felice’s tone and attitude intact.

The program remained varied as well, from Randy Black’s ruminative take on “So Pretty When” (his deft trio augmented by second guitarist Adam Sherman) to poets including Jim Dunn, who paid homage to Alexander in fired-up verse, with one couplet citing “The rhythm of your rockin,’ and the roll of your soul.”

John Felice and David Robinson at the Cut. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Of course, it was a long night for fans largely getting on in years, many likely facing a ride back toward Boston. The night began to wind down with a house band led by Tony Goddess, serenading Alexander and his friends with covers that included Jenny Dee’s sublime vocal on the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.”

Goddess runs the recording studio Bang-A-Song in the building’s basement, not knowing a multi-million-dollar rock club would take over the former CVS space upstairs. He’s sure glad that it did – and now he’s not the only one.

Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston GlobeRolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.

Written by Paul Robicheay for ArtsFuse