Gig Review: Little Axe @ The Jazz Cafe, 18th November 2017

The 1980s featured a smorgasbord of great guitarists and Skip McDonald was right in the thick of it. He started the decade playing on many classic Sugar Hill Records sides and ended it as a member of futuristic funk/rock titans Tackhead.

Since then blues-dub solo project Little Axe has been his chief musical outlet, a collaboration with legendary mixologist Adrian Sherwood and Sugar Hill cohorts Doug Wimbish on bass and Keith Leblanc on drums. 1994 debut The Wolf That House Built was a big critical success, but, after a run of middling albums through the noughties, Little Axe’s time somehow seemed to have come and gone.

Until now. It’s unclear whether the state of the world (and the White House) has given him a new lease of life but McDonald’s bittersweet missives seem tailor-made for these times. This packed one-off London gig – promoting impressive, surprisingly upbeat new album London Blues – saw McDonald joined onstage by Wimbish, Sherwood and drummer Andy Gangadeen.

Observing Sherwood was like watching a master cocktail-maker at work, adding his trademark delays and feedback loops with deft sleights of hand. The ageless Wimbish was in typically fine form too, creating mind-bending dub tones with some very nifty footwork – not for nothing has he occasionally referred to himself as the ‘Bruce Lee of bass’.

But McDonald’s impressive vocals were the star of the show, and he also seems to have found his electric guitar mojo again. Old favourite ‘If I Had My Way’ has never sounded so apt (‘These are demon days/It’s a time of chaos, rage and anxiety/Where you gonna be when two worlds collide?’) while new songs ‘Snake Oil’, ‘Factory Girl’ and ‘London Blues’ were instant earworms. The latter could even make for a leftfield choice of single. Best of all though was chilling closer ‘Deep River’, an eerie death-dub with a central image of ‘a flower blooming in hell’, sounding a bit like an unlikely collaboration between Gregory Isaacs and Sarah Kane.

There was a slightly valedictory feeling to the end of the gig; Wimbish, Sherwood and McDonald’s farewells were possibly more heartfelt than usual. It would be a great shame if this was the last we see of Skip’s Axe – the state of the world and a fine new album would seem to demand that he continue.

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Gig Review: The Revolution @ The Showbox, 15th July 2017

Our man in Seattle: Sebastian Wright.

A warm Seattle evening, just steps away from the iconic Pike Place Market. One of the definitive bands of the ’80s are getting ready to take the stage. But one member, the lead vocalist, is famously and notably absent. How can they pay tribute without becoming a tribute act?

The Revolution are close to the end of their 29-date North American tour. Reformed with the original line-up, they provided backup for Prince throughout his creative zenith (1980-86). It’s hard to think of a band who funked as hard in that era. And tonight, that’s what shines through.

The Revolution, 2017: From left, Brown Mark, Dr Fink, Bobby Z, Lisa Coleman, Wendy Melvoin and guest Dez Dickerson

Gone are the ’80s fashions, the side partings, ruffs and glitter (though keyboard player Dr Fink maintains his scrubs and stethoscope). This is not a celebration of the past but rather a testament to how relevant Prince’s music remains today. In the diverse, 1,100 capacity Showbox crowd, there is no hint of irony or throwback-chic. These people, many of them tattooed with Prince’s ‘symbol’ motif, came to party. And from the opening bars of ‘Computer Blue’, party is what they do.

What follows is a two-hour set of peerless pop classics. There are no overwrought solos, no extended jams. Nothing outstays its welcome or is embellished. Wendy takes lead guitar but keeps true to her original riffs instead of trying to mimic Prince’s soloing. It’s a joy to hear a band this tight and disciplined. Their use of vintage keyboards and drum machines, at chest- splitting volume, has a transportive effect.

Joined by guest vocalist Stokley Williams, The Revolution power through ‘Uptown’ and ‘DMSR’ until noticeably dropping the energy level (and losing the crowd) with two tracks from Prince’s vault of unreleased songs. Then it’s back to the dancefloor, tearing through ‘Erotic City’, ‘Let’s Work’ and ‘1999’, until their next break in pace: Wendy and Lisa’s quiet, melancholic and clearly deeply personal tribute to their missing bandleader, ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’.

It’s at this point that you hear the tears from fans who continue to be touched by the passing of their innovative, imaginative hero. For many, this is a moment of quiet reflection, surrounded by like-minded people – a cathartic release for all, including a visibly upset Wendy. As the show goes on, climaxing with ‘Purple Rain’, the band are overwhelmed by the ecstatic energy of the crowd.

It’s not hard to understand how The Revolution, all now in their mid-50s, can keep up with touring such a high-energy show. The passion of the music, camaraderie of the players and discipline of their act transform the audience into just what they lack: their missing frontman.

Run DMC & Beastie Boys @ Brixton Academy: 30 Years Ago Today

1987 was the year hip-hop went mainstream in the UK. Or at least it felt like that at my school. A few of the ‘cool’ kids were nicking the VW signs popularised by Mike D of the Beastie Boys (a major tabloid cause célèbre) and friends’ parents were even playing Licensed To Ill at parties.

Public Enemy, Run DMC, LL Cool J, Eric B & Rakim and Salt-N-Pepa were the dog’s b****cks, graffiti culture was getting big and DJ Tim Westwood was fast becoming a household name, thanks to his progression from Kiss FM to Capital. This excellent, recently-unearthed BBC documentary handily incorporates all of the above:

Two legendary gigs seem to epitomise London’s love affair with classic hip-hop in ’87: Run DMC & Beastie Boys’ notorious double-header at the Brixton Academy – the first night of which happened 30 years ago today – and also the Def Jam package tour which checked into the Hammersmith Odeon later in the year.

As the late great Shaw Taylor used to say on ‘Police 5’, were you there? If you were (I wasn’t), let me know your memories of these seminal London gigs.

Gig Review: John Carpenter @ The Troxy, 1st November 2016

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Carpenter (centre) and band overseen by Jamie Lee Curtis and Nancy Loomis from ‘Halloween’

In a way, it’s surprising that John Carpenter has taken so long to perform his own music in concert. The director of ‘Halloween’, ‘Assault On Precinct 13’, ‘The Fog’ and ‘The Thing’ is well-known for his incredibly effective, synth-laden soundtracks, and he’s also been known to let his hair down in after-hours rock band The Coupe De Villes with movie biz friends Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace.

But it’s actually a perfect time for him to be fronting his own band. Watching Adam Curtis’s impressive ‘HyperNormalisation’ documentary last week, I was struck how many current bands are clearly influenced by Carpenter’s music (which has also frequently turned up in Curtis’s docs). The dark, pulsing synthscapes of worriedaboutsatan and Pye Corner Audio particularly owe him a large debt.

Though apparently not in tip-top health (it’s hard to resist quoting that great line from ‘Assault’: ‘He don’t stand up as good as he used to…’), Carpenter was clearly having a ball on this short UK tour, bopping around behind his keyboard and booming out pre-rehearsed lines like ‘Good evening, London, I’m John Carpenter!’ and ‘Horror movies will live forever!’.

The beautiful Art-Deco Troxy venue was specially decked out like the ‘Escape From New York’ set, while a large screen behind the stage projected key scenes from his many classic movies.

carpenter-they-live

Carpenter mixed up tracks from his soundtrack work with some from recent non-soundtrack albums Lost Themes 1 and 2. The theme from ‘The Fog’, embellished with some baroque church organ, sent a chill down the spine while ‘They Live’ and ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’ were graced with some great, sleazy noir lead guitar from Daniel Davies.

‘Halloween’ and ‘Escape From New York’ were greeted like hit singles by the near-sold-out crowd. Newer track ‘Vortex’ showed how distinctive a musician Carpenter really is, the opening piano chords instantly recognisable as his soundworld. Other tracks had hints of Metallica, The Knack and even The Police at their rockiest.

A couple of bum notes: the venue sound was not great and the band were a bit brittle at times – you occasionally wanted a bit of double-bass-pedal mayhem from drummer Scott Seiver. There was also a bit too much DX7 and not enough booming Moog in the synth department. And where was the video for ‘Night’?

But all in all this was a great way to pay one’s respects to a master of mood and texture and a damn good musician to boot. Go ahead, John. We await the Coupe De Ville’s debut London gig with anticipation.

Gig Review: Scritti Politti @ The Roundhouse, 5th February 2016

all photos: John Williams Photography

all photos: John Williams Photography

Stage fright is the elephant in the room for some musicians. For every Jimi Hendrix or Madonna there’s an Andy Partridge or Green Gartside, gifted songwriters for whom live performance never felt like their true calling. And during the opening moments of this hugely enjoyable – even revelatory – Scritti gig, it all threatened to go a bit Pete Tong before a triumphant turnaround.

Despite his extraordinary, instantly recognisable vocals, Gartside has always been somewhat of a reluctant frontman. He started out almost as the default vocalist in a kind of post-punk collective before an extreme onstage panic attack meant that he didn’t play live at all between 1980 and 2006. But during that enforced exile, he built up one of the most sophisticated, revered and interesting songbooks in British pop. As with Partridge, the break from live performing brought out the best in him and produced classic albums Songs To Remember, Cupid & Psyche ’85 and Provision. This relatively rare Scritti gig at the legendary Chalk Farm venue was a celebration of a fascinating career, and Gartside was also committed to explaining (almost) all the whys and wherefores of his craft in often hilariously candid fashion.

Scritti Politti 2

You could forgive a remarkably youthful-looking Green his nerves – The Roundhouse was jam-packed, bathed in subtle lighting and beautifully decked out as an all-seater venue in the round. Just entering the auditorium almost led this writer to give out an audible expletive. But in a way he should have felt right at home – Scritti’s original late-’70s HQ was just around the corner on Carol Street, and Green also revealed that the Young Communist League and men’s group (‘where we would berate ourselves for being men’!) had also been very near the venue.

But back to the stage fright. Before even a note had been played, Green had major guitar strap issues, finding himself unable to get the damn instrument on as the crowd applauded sympathetically. ‘Oh, shit… This is why I didn’t play live for 20 years’, he sighed, looking genuinely troubled. ‘The Sweetest Girl’ finally got things underway, the delicious 1981 single described by Gartside as being his attempt to fuse Kraftwerk and Gregory Isaacs. He revealed that he had even approached those two to collaborate on the song; when he didn’t hear back from the German techno innovators, he subsequently bumped into their co-founder Florian at a Tito Puente gig (of all things), only to be told by the titular German: ‘I hate reggae’!

Gartside indulged in some spirited rapping and did a passable Meshell Ndegeocello impression during ‘Die Alone’ while ‘The Word Girl’ sounded simply fantastic, causing outbreaks of groovy dancing from the very diverse crowd. Green revealed that the original vocal may have been influenced by looking out of the studio window and seeing a sheep up to its neck in snow during the song’s recording in 1984.

Scritti Politti 3

A spine-tingling ‘Boom Boom Bap’ was described as an ode to ‘beer and hip-hop’, while the delicious ‘Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder’ pushed its claim as the greatest ever Green composition, apparently written on one of Joni Mitchell’s guitars given to him by legendary manager Peter Asher. Green also described how the song was ‘started in an LA hotel and finished in a flat above a dentist in Newport, Gwent’.

The raw, spiky ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ and ’28/8/78′ (with spoken-word additions from Radio 4’s Harriet Cass) sounded like they could have been recorded yesterday, while the live premiere of ‘Asylums In Jerusalem‘ was perfect. A delicious ‘Oh Patti’ also got its live premiere, and ‘Jacques Derrida’ reiterated how similar Scritti and Prefab Sprout’s soundworlds were in the early ’80s, though Green ended it with a passionate rendition of Jeru The Damaja’s ‘Come Clean’. The closing duo of ‘Wood Beez’ and ‘Absolute’ prompted a further outbreak of dancing in the aisles, perfect slices of digital funk with fine keyboards from Rhodri Marsden.

Minor quibbles: onstage sound issues gave Gartside some serious pitching problems, though typically he was completely candid about this, describing his performance as ‘artfully inept’. But there was never any doubt about how seriously he took his craft: announcing that the band was about to play a medley of unfinished new songs, a man in the front row let out a giggle, prompting Green to pointedly remark: ‘This is very f***ing serious, sir.’ At times, the band sounded brittle (though they would remain anonymous, there being no onstage introduction from Green), even though roughly 30 percent of the output seemed to be coming from backing tapes. But it really didn’t matter – you couldn’t take your eyes off the stage.

There’s simply no one else like Green Gartside in British music: a 60-year-old man fusing hip-hop, reggae, bubblegum pop, low-fi post-punk and superior synth-funk, and pulling it all together with great aplomb. This superbly shambolic gig very much whets the appetite for an upcoming album on Rough Trade.

Gig Review: Phil Gould/Mike Lindup/Wally Badarou @ 606 Club, 11th January 2016

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Phil Gould in 1987

‘Pocket’ is hard to define but you know it when you hear it. Drummers often say that you’re either in the pocket or you ain’t, and as such the expression is mostly used in association with great US groovemasters like Richie Hayward, James Gadson, Bernard Purdie and Andy Newmark.

But ex-Level 42 drummer Phil Gould has been busy over the last 35 years (and a personal musical hero for about 30 of those) laying claim to be the UK’s premier proponent of ‘pocket’, but he has a lot of other weapons in his arsenal too. Though relatively quiet since leaving Level 42 in 1987 (making a brief return in 1994), Gould pops up on the London live music scene now and again. He also released his first solo album Watertight in 2009.

This 606 gig was very much a Level 42 reunion of sorts featuring keyboards and vocals from Mike Lindup and honorary ‘fifth member’ Wally Badarou, though, in an unexpected but typically generous move from the modest drummer/leader, the focus was very much on excellent vocalists Diana Winter and Sumudu with added support from the superb Yolanda Charles on bass, guitarist Fabio Balestrieri and Alex (son of Phil) Gould on piano and occasional drums.

The opening ‘Madness’ was a reliable portent of things to come, with Gould’s tasty, behind-the-beat groove underpinning some gentle Latin percussion and Mike Lindup’s strong vocals and electric piano. Winter and Sumudu took centrestage for most of the rest of the first set, their voices combining exceptionally well especially on the catchy ‘Supergirl’.

Badarou dusted off a funky, rough-and-ready version of the mid-’80s dancefloor classic ‘Chief Inspector’, adding some piquant synth flavours, while Lindup aired an excellent songwriting collaboration with Billy Cobham and Dominic Miller. Perhaps predictably though, the highlight of the evening was a nifty run-through of the classic Level 42 instrumental ‘Heathrow’, with Charles powering the band superbly and even supplying a note-for-note rendition of Mark King’s original bass part.

On a difficult day for music, with the earlier announcement of David Bowie’s death, Gould provided an uplifting – if very light – evening with lots of healing sounds, fine vocals, lean grooves and good vibes. It’s always a pleasure to hear him at the kit, and it’s also always a pleasure to get down to the 606, one of the great hidden gems of the London music scene.