One man stands playing a guitar and singing, behind him a woman.

Come Sail Away, Mr. Roboto: future of the left and the Passion of the Medley

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  • In my hometown of Cheyenne, Wyoming, there’s a week of rodeos and night shows every July called Frontier Days. It’s the “Daddy of ‘em all,” and from toddlerhood through middle school this week one of the few events to look forward to in town. Multiple parades, a labyrinthine carnival, cowboy bars at triple their legal capacity, and heaps of legacy acts tear through town to shake up the otherwise unassuming state capitol.

    Not to paint my own nails but I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, and Molly Hatchet, which, for the non-country musicians that Frontier Days draws, aren’t too demographically surprising. I missed out on Nickelback and Local H to my eternal shame, because Local H fucking rules and rumor has it that someone beamed a laser-pen into Chad Nickelback’s eyes during the set and he pitched a helluva fit. But one particularly memorable concert I’d caught from the Daddy of ‘em All is the back half of a Styx set.

    I had to hustle out from my job at the town’s best record store (shout out to Ernie November) and hoped to see Styx play the two songs I knew. “Come Sail Away” was a given, delivered as an elongated sing-along during which the lead singer implored the audience, which he crowned “the Cheyenne Tabernacle Choir” many times with obnoxious joy, to raise our voices alongside him. We got rowdy in return for many repetitions of “Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with meeeeee!” Tens of thousands of mostly drunk prairie dogs howling in mutual, coerced karaoke. Which took the sting out of their partial performance of “Mr. Roboto” as part of an earlier medley.

    A medley. Such disrespect. Their second most well-known song (to me) split open and crammed in with a bunch of other semi-prog 70’s filler. It’s not, like, an amazing work of global pop music, but I didn’t expect to catch just a single lap of my favorite bit, an earnest and heartfelt thanks to Johnny 5. My radio-friendly childhood self was aghast, or at least quite disappointed, and a lifelong distaste for medleys was born on that dusty Summer evening. I had officially sworn off bands mashing up their own tunes until the end of my days. It’s a cop-out, a bite of the thumb to those in the crowd who may not go as deep into the back catalog as the band might prefer.

    This attitude of mine persisted until the recent release of future of the left’s live at highbury garage 01?.?12?.?16. I’ve long loved the work of Andrew Falkous and Jack Egglestone in both this band and the earlier mclusky, along with their various co-conspirators in de- and reconstructed noisy rock n’ roll. They’ve squeezed a lot of caustic wit and spittle from the standard guitar/bass/drums setup for a while, and this live album shows that with current (and arguably best) bassist Julia Ruzicka, they light a special sonic fire despite what album sales and international tax laws that restrict global touring might indicate.

    And yet, at the end of this album sits a medley of one of my favorite future of the left songs that seemed unplayable live for its spoken word and plaintive acoustic introduction and outro: “lapsed catholics.” This is one of their most shapely, structured songs, as radio-friendly as the band might get, though most stations probably wouldn’t air for the bother of getting hassled by the religious. future of the left capped this bittersweet sardonic meditation on escape and futility with the closest thing to a hit mclusky ever had, the riotous “lightsabre cocksucking blues” (as featured in the Seth Rogen mall-cop flop Observe and Report): a room-smasher that spun Blur’s “Song 2” on its ass. Kicking off the combo plate is the more recent future of the left track “french lessons,” the logical extension of a band that likes to put the Beatles and alternative into an acid bath, flirting with repetition but mostly still revelling in the muck of melted down rock.

    Unlike what many bands might pull with a medley—those with a sliver of notoriety to cash in on but a chip on their shoulder the size of their previous success—future of the left have constructed this one around a song by their former band (does that still count as a cover?) not simply out of obligation to their frothing followers, but because it’s fun to play. Or so I presume, and I’m open to any Boston-adjacent musicians who want to start a mclusky knockoff for Halloween to test this theory. It’s the core of the encore, a track the audience expects and that this band has delivered for some time even after mclusky’s demise. But future of the left hasn’t filleted it into a mere slice to satiate the fans. They’ve spiced this last round with an intro of “french lessons,” a clear declaration of the band as it exists at the time of the show, and bookended the rest with “lapsed catholics”—a document of this band’s previous incarnation (with ex-bassist Kelson Mathias) at their pinnacle of sarcastic bombast dressed in sly, deceptively reluctant sentimentality.

    Even still, the songs don’t simply follow each other without a break: instead they twine up and spin around. There’s the false introduction of the high-hats of “lightsabre” after “french lessons” and a lyric-less return to the chorus melody of “lapsed catholics” to conclude “lightsabre,” which ends as a stiff splat against a wall in the recorded version. Then the whole shebang rollicks out piece by piece, instruments dropping away or detouring into some Beastie Boys and “messing on” as the live title puts the last quarter. It’s a romp, and the only way to really land this plane of a medley.

    To have three eras of some of my favorite songwriters splendidly woven together is a real treat, a testament to the medley’s power. It’s no surprise though; future of the left has been re-appropriating the tools of rock for years. I only wish to see them turn the scalpel on themselves with such masterful glee live and in person once again.

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