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.