[Live Review]: Curtis Harding – Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, London 11/03/15

curtis harding“It’s just a matter of time, the world has to know / This light of mine, I’m gonna let it show”

Secluded off Bethnal Green’s main road, it seems the Working Men’s Club has a lot to offer for a Wednesday evening. Downstairs are rows of tables bulging with models for the weekly meeting of Hackney Area Tabletop Enthusiasts and a framed pair of knickers signed by Tom Jones sitting behind the bar. But tonight the main attraction is upstairs in a room that has admittedly seen better days, decked out in chintzy plywood and gummed-up carpet, for a sold out night of dirty R&B from Atlantan, Curtis Harding.

First up, West-Londoners Fair Ohs lay into sax-fuelled jams with absolutely filthy bass lines. Guitarist and vocalist Eddy Frankel is in a typically confrontational mood, introducing the band after the first number ‘Fucking shit, we’re the fucking Fair Ohs, fuck you!’, before adding ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean that…unless you’re a racist’. There’s a strange tension between the effusively funky indie-rock with powerhouse drumming and intricate guitar noodling the quartet serve up and the abrasively bizarre onstage banter, but there’s no denying they get the crowd (tentatively) moving. Though not moving quite as much as Frankel and sax player Sam Ayers who pull shapes like Earthworm Jim, knees wiggling and heads shaking throughout the set, which ends on a characteristically idiosyncratic slice of psychedelia and goading announcement from Frankel: “Buy us beers, it’s the least you can do! Don’t buy our t-shirts though, because we don’t have any!”

After a brief interval Harding’s band climb the stage, which is barely big enough to house the five-piece with a tunnel-of-love heart sitting at the back, and vamp on a gospel groove before the man himself takes the stage and leads them through a rollicking ‘Soul Power’. Apart from afro and shades he doesn’t cut the traditional image of a soul man, wearing an orange cardigan over a torn green tee and wielding a red Airline guitar, but this is sticky punk ’n’ soul bred in garages and it suits the rough and ready locale he finds himself in tonight. There’s certainly no denying the soulful quality of Harding’s voice either, which he has learned to control from years of backing Cee Lo Green, knowing when to push for wailing heights and when to cool off to a smooth croon.

It’s a shame then that initial sound system issues mean his voice is hard to hear in the mix, while the keys remain indistinct for much of the show. After ‘Soul Power’ closes Harding requests for the vocals to be turned up and the burning lights to be turned down, which settle to an appropriately dusky red for the film noir soul of Next Time, while the heart in the background twinkles with carnival lights. Driven by a mellifluous bass line and scraping rhythm guitar, Harding’s bruised holler now rings out clear while warm trumpet swells add a touch of class.

As the song finishes a member of the audience shouts “The sound is shit!”, to which Harding retorts “Enjoy the soul!”. He takes off his sunglasses, the only time in the evening he does so, eyeballs her and asks “Are you going to fix the sound? Come fix the sound! Come fix the sound!” The chant is taken up by the audience, before Harding concludes “No? Then you’re not helping!”, accompanied by the lead guitarist comically playing the opening bars of Star Spangled Banner.

They head back into the set with renewed vigour, Harding’s brooding vocals playing against the muscular bluesy guitar of spacey ‘Castaway’. Ramshackle punk barnstormer ‘Surf’ kicks like a mule, rattling along with abandon as Harding wails the non-verbal refrain, while ‘The Drive’s loud, and moody groove oozes cool under shimmering guitar. Eventually Harding trades his guitar for a tambourine on a sultry cover of Bill Withers’s ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, before the band strike up the four-to-the-floor funk rhythm of ‘Heaven’s On The Other Side’. It too carries some of Withers’s magic from his disco days, as the crowd moves under an old mirrorball while Harding sings “I miss you, but the dancefloor’s right here”. He then announces “Here’s what I want you to do: Keep on shining… and don’t complain about shitty sound systems”, and the crowd erupts with jubilant applause for a ramped up twist through the Curtis Mayfield-esque debut single ‘Keep On Shining’.

The band exit into the crowd briefly (backstage being non-existent here) before returning for  some old numbers. Danny-Lee Blackwell, also a cohort in Harding’s side-project Night Sun alongside members of Black Lips,  swaps bass for guitar duties as they lay into a slow-burning jam of California Dreamin’. Harding gives a yearning performance that belies his gospel roots and the band trade sparring solos, with rhodesy keys whirling into syncopated drum flourishes, while Blackwell rips into effusive blues-psych shredding, looking like a member of Crazy Horse in Mayan patterns and under a wide-brimmed hat. The gang rally and fire on all cylinders for a home-run blast through Night Sun’s ‘No Pressure’, with Harding vocally mirroring Blackwell’s guitar solo over the hurtling DEATH-style surf-punk.

It’s heady stuff and brings the night to an uproarious close, leaving the onstage heart flickering  as the abandoned guitars feedback. Despite sound issues, Harding’s instinctual soul fused with visceral punk cut right through, proving that as a soul man he can kick out the jams too.

Soul Power is available now through Burger / ANTI- Records.

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[Cover Me]: Dead Kennedys, Nouvelle Vague and Seu Jorge.

There are good covers, and there are bad covers. These are some I think belong in the former category.

Dead Kennedys – ‘Viva Las Vegas’ (Originally by Elvis Presley)
Appearing at the tail end of their 1980 debut Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, Dead Kennedys had been playing the Elvis Presley show tune since their early days. Stripped down and revved up, this version simmers with reckless abandon and the anarchic humour in Jello Biafra’s reworked lyrics of a coked up gambler rings truer than the original’s optimism. Fittingly, the Kennedys’ version appeared in Terry Gilliam’s leering film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.

Nouvelle Vague – ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’ (Originally by Dead Kennedys)
Almost at the other end of the spectrum, this take on Dead Kennedys’ fourth single is slowed to sultry, bossa nova groove. Bringing their distinctive knack for transposing punk and new wave songs to a lounge jazz setting effectively, Nouvelle Vague put ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’ in a drinks party and what it might be missing in Biafra’s manic energy is made up for by Camille Dalmais’s amusing and bubbly delivery.

Seu Jorge – ‘Rock n’ Roll Suicide’ (Originally by David Bowie)
Seen here in his Team Zissou garb on the good ship Belafonte, Brazilian actor Seu Jorge’s major contribution to The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou was to reinvent a slew of early David Bowie songs as Portuguese acoustic ditties. Hearing these versions Bowie himself said “Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs acoustically in Portuguese I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with”. Brimming with charm, Jorge’s covers are the masterstroke in Wes Anderson’s absurd nautical adventure.

[Sound and Vision]: We Are The Best!

we-are-the-best-640 “What’s a chord?”

A punk prayer.

After a lengthy detour into experimental narratives and Christian allegories, Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson has returned to the effusive coming-of-age dramas of his early years in We Are The Best! (Vi Är Bäst!), based on wife Coco Moodysson’s comic book Never Goodnight.

Stockholm. 1982. Punk is dead. Or at least, that’s what everyone keeps on telling Klara and Bobo, two punk-obsessed best friends who are shunned at their high school. While boys are either listening to Joy Division or playing denim-clad rock and girls are dancing to The Human League, opinionated Klara (Mira Grosin) and mild-mannered Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) are more interested in spiking their hair, creating dioramas of disaster zones and gossiping over punk fanzines. Reacting to their dislike of P.E. lessons and in an effort to annoy local rockers, the overly-macho named Iron Fist, the girls pick up bass and drums at their youth centre and write the song, ‘Hate The Sport’. The problem is neither of them know how to play. At all.

That’s where Hedvig, played by Liv LeMoyne, comes in, whom Klara and Bobo spot performing a classical guitar piece at the end of term talent show. More than her evident ability to play her instrument though, the girls are impressed by Hedvig’s resolve to continue playing undeterred by the heckles and jeers from the audience. She is a year older and, unlike Bobo and Klara, a devout Christian, but she is also an outsider and this forms the basis of an unlikely friendship as the girls introduce her to punk music and she brings actual melody to the band. Together they navigate the uncertain terrain of pre-adolescent life, cutting Hedvig’s hair (to hilarious consequences), crashing their first party (to embarrassing consequences), fighting over a boy in a neighbouring punk band and inciting a riotous crowd at a youth centre Christmas showcase along the way.

never-goodnight

A panel from Coco Moodysson’s original Never Goodnight

While this is just the bare bones of the story, what really brings We Are The Best! to life and sets it apart is its balanced mood and attention to detail. Moodysson catches everything with fly-on-the-wall type voyeurism, insinuating the personal dissatisfactions of adult life and the difficulties of being a high-schooler without ever hitting you over the head with it. You genuinely empathise with the punk trio and it is their childlike motivations and unwillingness to be ignored which makes We Are The Best! so funny and charming.

This is not a film about snotty punk rebellion, but more about the joy and liberation found in starting up your first band and the strong bonds formed when you do things your way. People may tell them how to look, how to behave and how to play, but Klara, Bobo and Hedvig do things their way and that is what truly makes them The Best.

We Are The Best! is in cinemas now.

[From The Cutting Room Floor]: The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys and The Doors

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Often, seeking out new music can feel like a treasure hunt (or sweeping a minefield, depending on how you look at it). And every now and then you will come across those completely unexpected diamonds-in-the-rough that appear in the form of B-sides, outtakes or bootlegged live cuts. Those happy moments where you stumble across something that stops you in your tracks and think ‘Why is this only a B-side?’. This feature is about digging out those deeper cuts that deserve more attention than mere relegation.

‘Let’s Shake Hands’ – The White Stripes
Not a B-Side, but given that only 2,500 pressings of this release exist and that it wasn’t featured on any of The White Stripes’s studio albums it certainly qualifies as rare. Landing in 1998 on a limited 7″ run of 500, this single marked The White Stripes’s first recording and as a statement of intent they don’t come more definitive than this. Racing along on Jack White’s frenetic riffing and Meg White’s relentless drum pounding before clocking in at just over two minutes, this is taut, visceral garage punk at it’s best. It was paired with their ragtime version of Marlene Dietrich’s ‘Look Me Over Closely’, showing that the band had more than one string to their bow and singled them out as one to watch

‘You And I’ – Arctic Monkeys Feat. Richard Hawley
Crediting themselves as The Death Ramps on the B-Side to 2012’s Black Treacle, a pseudonym the band had used previously to anonymously release limited singles, Arctic Monkeys shift into fifth gear on this speeding road anthem. Sheffield’s elder songsmith, Richard Hawley, gives his meanest whisky-and-cigarettes-stained vocal delivery before the band head full-pelt into some scuzzy and searing solos. The whole track drips with attitude and quite frankly blows A-side ‘Black Treacle’ out of the water.

‘Who Do You Love’ – The Doors Feat. Albert King
When you can tour with blues giant Albert King as your opening act, you know you must be doing something right. Although their live acts courted much controversy in the preceding year and Jim Morrison would suffer an apparent breakdown onstage later in the year, forcing the band as a live unit into early retirement, performing here in June 1970 in Vancouver it is impossible to deny the elemental force The Doors wielded onstage. With Albert King invited onstage to provide slide duties and powered by Ray Manzarek’s groovy organ hook, the band burn their way through Bo Diddley standard ‘Who Do You Love’. While during this period Morrison’s performances were something of a crapshoot depending on how intoxicated he was, during this concert he is at his roaring best, a blues shaman channeling energy from somewhere else. As one of the last recorded performances and with Morrison dead within a year, this concert remains a testament to The Doors’s short lived greatness live.

What are your favourite B-sides and rarities? Let me know in the comments below.

[Sneak Peek]: Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost

tumblr_mo8cur8zrs1qb2mk2o1_500“Keep a red flag flying, keep a blue flag as well / And a white flag in case it all goes to hell.”

A friendship born on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon where The Roots have served as Fallon’s house band since the show’s premiere in 2009, Elvis Costello and Questlove (The Roots’s drummer and co-frontman) are set to release their full-length collaborative LP, Wise Up Ghost, tomorrow. The odd-couple, much? Probably, but looking at their respective career trajectories, Elvis Costello and Questlove have a lot in common. Both have been slow-burners and neither have shied away from making unpredictable career moves or bothered making distinctions between what their music should or should not be about. Also, neither have qualms about letting their social opinions known on record: The Roots have recorded challenging albums commenting on social inequality and dissatisfaction in America on albums such as Things Fall Apart and Rising Down, while Costello’s protests range from the furious (‘Radio Radio’, ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’) to the beaten down (‘Shipbuilding’). It is fitting then, that some songs on Wise Up Ghost grew out of reworking some of Costello’s angriest songs (‘Stick Out Your Tongue’ came from ‘Pills and Soap’) and that ‘Walk Us Uptown’ should be an equal meeting of Costello’s  admonishments and Questlove’s musical sensibilities.

The album’s cover art being presented in the distinctive style of the old City Lights pocket poetry volumes is not fanciful, as ‘Walk Us Uptown’ very much has the feel of a modern beat poem. The traditional jazz accompaniment has moved on to encompass hip-hop and rock and roll and it feels like natural continuation of where Gil Scott-Heron left off with his final volume, I’m New Here. Jarring samples and punk staccato guitar punctuate the mix, while Questlove’s drumming is busy yet downplayed. Rather than a lively beat it is a monotonous shuffle, simmering with the same malice as the beat on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’. This sense of unease is heightened by the edgy piano chords which permeate the track and the sound of a distant train fading in and out. Meanwhile, the world view of ‘Walk Us Uptown’ remains as bleak and apocalyptic as anything Allen Ginsberg or Amiri Baraka saw, full of degradation and barely suppressed fury. Costello has been long recognised as a wordsmith and here he sounds like a man reading out newspaper headlines, an endless litany of frustration and bile which is broken only occasionally by the refrain “Will you walk us uptown?”, which sounds more like a demand than a question.

This is anti-easy-listening music. Disguised behind ‘Walk Us Uptown’s catchy and listenable veneer, lies a challenging and troubling core, which Ben Greenman articulates when musing on Wise Up Ghost‘s title in his ambitious introduction to the album: “Often, [ghosts] are spirits left behind because they failed to demonstrate the appropriate acumen in life. Are we now, as a species, risking this kind of nightmare? Can we learn enough to prevent a purgatorial future?”. This is a tall order to fill, but, like the best of any art form, ‘Walk Us Uptown’ does not present answers. Rather it provokes questions in the consumer and, hopefully, we may derive some answers for ourselves.

Wise Up Ghost is available in record stores tomorrow through Blue Note Records.

[Sneak Peek]: Pearl Jam – Mind Your Manners

Lightning Bolt

“I’ve lost my patience, my patience tried”

As a major Pearl Jam fan, the release of a new album is something of an event. As one of the only surviving bands from the early 90’s Seattle music scene, they’ve had a long time to stretch their music into various areas, from furious alternative rock to quieter and more poignant moments. After they realised their inner Who on BackSpacer I was interested to see where the band would go next, and if lead single ‘Mind Your Manners’ is any indication it is a very dark place indeed.

Backspacer was a record about coming to terms with age and mortality, and so in ‘Mind Your Manners’ it is exciting to see the band leaning back towards their more socially-outraged side, last seen on 2006’s Pearl Jam. We are firmly back in the territory of Vs. where the band was at it’s most aggressive, as Matt Cameron’s relentless drums and Mike McCready’s sinister guitar line cuts through the mix on ‘Mind Your Manners’. Meanwhile, Eddie Vedder’s anxious lyrics, loaded with feelings of futility and images of governmental hypocrisy, are delivered in Vedder’s characteristic roar. ‘Mind Your Manners’ is a rabid dog on a weakening leash and sounds like the twin of ‘Spin The Black Circle’, nearly twenty years delayed. The sheer aggressive energy threatens to derail the song at any moment, but Pearl Jam have honed their craft and their rage long enough to keep things on track.

As with the lead single from Backspacer, ‘The Fixer’, I was initially unimpressed by ‘Mind Your Manners’. However, Pearl Jam are a band whose music, though attention grabbing, does not reveal itself all at once. There are always subtle tricks which you miss first time around, even on their most simple songs like ‘Lukin’, and it is only after repeated listens that ‘Mind Your Manners’ reaches its full potential. And so if ‘Mind Your Manners’ is any indication, then Lightning Bolt looks set to be a dark and riffy ride.

‘Mind Your Manners’ is available to download now. Lightning Bolt will be released 15th October 2003 through Monkeywrench Record 

[Cover Me]: The Gaslight Anthem, Michael Kiwanuka & Sachal Studios Orchestra

The Gaslight Anthem – Changing of the Guards (Originally by Bob Dylan)

The Gaslight Anthem are a band I have been following since I first started listening to them a few years ago. In that time they have gone from strength to strength, incorporating varying elements of punk, soul and rock and roll into a uniquely recognisable style all of their own. The lads have announced that they’ve finished recording their fourth studio album, Handwritten, which is estimated to be released in the summer. If, like me, you can hardly wait for the album’s release then hopefully this gem of a track will help tide you over until then. I hadn’t heard this Dylan track from 1978’s Street Legal before, but the lyrics are prophetically striking and almost Yeats-ian. However, I find the original somewhat pales in comparison to this raw and blood racing rendition. As ever Brian Fallon’s delivery is impeccable, moving between red-eyed rage and broken vulnerability as the situation calls for. Meanwhile the cutting lead guitar, cascading drums and thundering bass show the rest of the band are on sterling form as they race along, helter-skelter style, through Dylan’s apocalyptic track.

Watch this space for a review of Handwritten come summer time!

Michael Kiwanuka – Whole Lotta Love (Originally by Led Zeppelin)

It’s about time we had another Zeppelin track in this feature, and this time BBC’s elected Sound of 2012, Michael Kiwanuka, steps up to the plate.You’d be forgiven for not recognising the song at first, until the familiar bass line emerges out of a haze of swirling sitar instrumentation. After this the rest of the track falls into place, with organ, slide guitar and drums enthralling the listener. I never thought I’d hear a cover of the proto-blues/punk classic that features a sitar, but it makes sense here, especially in the cavernous breakdown after the second chorus. Meanwhile, Michael’s soul-searching voice remains cool and restrained, making sure not to fall into the pitfall of imitating Robert Plant’s inimitable, primal vocals. Though the band follow the original’s blueprint fairly closely, they manage to make their individual mark on it.

Stay tuned for a review of Michael’s debut album Home Again later this week.

Sachal Studio Orchestra – Take Five (Originally by Dave Brubeck Quartet)

While we’re on the sitar tip, let’s take things into exotic jazz territory. ‘Take Five’ is probably one of the most instantly recognisable jazz riffs, if not THE most recognisable jazz riff, and it was while looking up George Benson’s equally impressive cover that I came across this interpretation. By using traditional Indian and Pakistani instruments the Sachal Studio Orchestra manage to make Dave Brubeck Quartet’s jazz masterpiece sound simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. The saxophone riff is transposed onto sitar and violin, while the essential timekeeping duties are given over to tablas. It really works and manages to breathe new life into a classic which has been covered to the point of possibly losing its original spark and colour. Stunning.