David Essex last played Nottingham in 2005, on the Once In A Lifetime package tour. Unlike the other former 1970s heartthrobs on the bill, there was nothing of the comeback-chasing faded star about his performance, which was easily the most assured of the night. For despite his long absence from the singles charts, Essex has never really gone away. As well as the string of stage musicals and TV appearances, he is still recording and releasing new music via his web site, for the benefit of his ever-loyal fan base.
And then there are the massive tours, which see Essex filling decent sized venues such as the Royal Concert Hall, year after year. Once again, he has chosen to start this year’s 48 date, three month marathon in Nottingham.
His audience splits into two groups: the nostalgia brigade, rolling back the years and partying like it was 1975, and the die-hards, who are clearly familiar with the newer material. The die-hards were mostly in the stalls, where they remained standing all the way through the show, even during the slower numbers.
At the age of 59, Essex looks every inch the “silver fox”, radiating an easy-going, twinkle-eyed charm which can still get the girls squealing: even the simple act of removing his coat earned him yelps of delight.
In recent years, he has adopted a back-to-basics style, performing with a simple four-piece backing band on an uncluttered stage. The set opened with a couple of songs from the forthcoming Beautiful Day album, before leaping straight into an extended run of hits: the atmospheric Rock On, the quirky Lamplight, the throbbing Silver Dream Machine (complete with vintage motor-biking film footage), the trenchant Imperial Wizard, and the amusingly corny If I Could.
After such a strong, crowd-pleasing start, the second half of the set inevitably came as something of an anti-climax. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the newer stuff – mostly mainstream, middle-of-the-road pop/rock – but equally, there’s little that reaches out to new listeners. Sequencing the show in this way was a bold move – but for the less committed amongst us, it also became something of a slog.
Nevertheless, all was forgotten by the end of the show. Hold Me Close woke everyone up, and the enduringly fantastic Gonna Make You A Star sent us home smiling. Based on the sheer warmth of his reception, you sense that this teen idol turned elder statesman still has plenty of successful years ahead of him.
Just over two years ago, this eight-piece indie-pop act from Toronto played a truly stunning gig at The Social. It was one of those perfect alignments of band, audience, material and venue which comes along all too rarely, but which can compensate in one stroke for a whole string of so-so evenings.
At that time, the band was promoting their second album, the sublime Mississauga Goddam, which was picking up a string of justifiably ecstatic reviews. It seemed as if their singular brew of self-styled “gay church folk music” was poised on the brink of a breakthrough. Would they too join the ever-growing ranks of “name” acts who have swung by The Social on their way to major success? It seemed like a plausible bet.
Two years on, the Hidden Cameras returned to the same venue, in front of an adoring but noticeably diminished crowd, promoting their third album Awoo: an enjoyable enough re-working of their formula, but lacking that indefinable quality which made their earlier material so magical. It can be a tough gig, living up to such heightened expectations, and they came within inches of greatness – and yet, for all the beaming smiles which bounced from the performers to the audience and back again, it all felt a little too cosy and predictable.
That said, there was still much to enjoy. Led by singer-songwriter Joel Gibb, and with their sound fleshed out by a splendid three-piece string section, the Cameras specialise in skilfully arranged, richly melodic three-minute ditties, with a deceptive sweetness of touch that conceals some deeply personal and highly unorthodox lyrics. Audience participation is encouraged, with tambourines handed out to some of the most enthusiastic.
Two years from now, will we all be meeting up again for more of the same?
This multi-racial seven-piece collective from West London specialises in something called “broken beat”. If you thought this was an esoteric sub-genre, of interest only to serious-minded chin-strokers, then think again: there is nothing “broken” about this good-natured, accessible and thoroughly likeable music, which mixes the best elements of funk, soul and electronica into an infectious brew which deserves a wider audience than the clued-up Gilles Peterson crowd from which it originates.
Now promoting their long overdue debut album Back In The Doghouse, the band are finally taking their live show to the rest of the country. After a competent but lukewarm start, heavy on the groove but light on actual songcraft, things clicked into place from the fourth number onwards.
Despite the large number of people onstage, the music was mainly generated from three keyboardists and a live drummer. In the back corner, the band’s resident DJ had the cushiest job. Never touching his decks, he contented himself with occasional light percussion duties. Nice work if you can get it.
The Bugz belong to that fine tradition of eclectic home-grown funk which stretches back from Basement Jaxx to the Brand New Heavies and Soul II Soul. Some of their most effective material evoked classic early 1980s acts such as Shalamar and Evelyn King. Their powerful re-working of Don’t Stop The Music ignited the crowd, as did all the material which is currently showcased on their Myspace page – an increasingly common phenomenon.
An encore of Sounds Like turned into a celebratory extended jam, with three band members attacking the drum kit, as the DJ cheekily lapped up the applause from centre stage. With Basement Jaxx beginning to falter, and the reformed Brand New Heavies desperately trying to claw back lost ground, the opportunity for the Bugz to break through is wide open.
Full disclosure: the second album by The Hidden Cameras, Mississauga Goddam, was my favorite release of 2004, and I have been panting with anticipation for its successor for several months. It therefore gives me no pleasure to report that, even after dozens of plays, AWOO steadfastly refuses to graduate from the extremely pleasant to the truly transcendent.
I have given AWOO time, because Mississauga Goddam also needed time. Time enough to accept that the same so-called “gay church folk music” formula was still being followed, with little discernible musical or lyrical progression. Time enough to realize that this was no reductive repetition, but an elegant refinement and consolidation of the themes which The Smell of Our Own set in motion. For when a house style is this singular, with so few points of useful comparison outside of its own self-contained universe, then unfair charges of sameness are almost inevitable.
For me, what sealed Mississauga’s greatness was witnessing it being performed live. Whilst his perma-grinning band-mates cavorted and exhorted, whipping us up into a suitable state of exultant communion, singer and songwriter Joel Gibb stood stock still in the center of the fray: lofty, inscrutable, and detached, reciting his lines with barely a glimmer of visible emotion. So here were multiple contradictions: between the gleeful extroverts and the aloof loner, between the innocent fun of the high school revue and the darker undertow of the confessional booth, between the intensity of the lyrics and the impassivity of their performance. The private and public, the adult and the child-like, the sacred and the profane: all gloriously intermingled for maximum effect.
AWOO duly conjures up all of these memories—but it adds nothing to them, beyond a mental projection of what it will feel like to hear the new songs performed in a few weeks’ time, in the same small venue, in the same city, two years on. So, yes: the insistent, pile-driving “Lollipop,” largely performed on one repeated note at great speed, like a punk rock Philip Glass, will have us all frantically head-bobbing and pogo-dancing. Similarly, the call-and-response nature of the title track will have us hollering “Awoo!” in all the right places, and beaming like loons as we do so. Which is all neat and dandy—but we’ve been here before, our imaginations need more to work on than mere anticipation of a jolly night out, and we expect more from The Hidden Cameras than safe, predictable indie under-achievement.
Nevertheless, not everything has remained static—for this third re-working of the formula is conspicuously lacking in one of its key ingredients. Quite simply, all the raunchy gay sex has gone—and with it, the thrill (and let’s be honest, itwas a thrill) of scouring the lyrics for the latest transgressive gobbets, and of being the only person in the room to know what Gibb was really singing about. (“Guess what, everybody! This one’s about two guys pissing on each other!”)
Not only are they stripped of sex; their pointed lack of gender-specific references means that the unequivocally gay perspective has also vanished. Now, this can be interpreted in one of two ways. Either the Hidden Cameras are moving away from the limitations of the sexual-orientation-specific and towards a more all-encompassing universality—or else this is a pragmatic move towards the mainstream, made for fear of alienating potential new listeners who have the band tagged as gay-sex-obsessed one-trick ponies, and hence of no direct personal relevance. It’s a dilemma which the Scissor Sisters must also have been wrestling with, as the distinctly de-queered Ta-Dah will testify.
In the absence of the directly carnal, new themes emerge. Some of the time, you sense that Joel Gibb is celebrating his release from a sexual relationship, and gratefully embracing his new-found freedom from desire. Sex is no longer viewed as the holy sacrament; instead, celibacy and solitude are leading him towards an elevated state of grace. Maybe Gibb is outgrowing his penchant for the wilfully provocative; there are no “Ban Marriage” polemics to be found here. On the other hand, by blurring the gender boundaries (there’s the odd “she” to be found here and there, and even a couple of veiled hints that babies might be on the way), maybe he is seeking to provoke his existing audience, in an altogether subtler manner.
Not that any of this matters when you listen to AWOO without the aid of a lyric sheet, as most will happily continue to do. As ever, none of this material is particularly matched by the music, beyond a certain tendency towards the euphoric, or the beatific. Once again, this is emphatically major-key, rousingly assertive stuff, heavy on harmonic and rhythmic unison, and furnished with huge, rollicking melodic refrains which evoke something of the campfire sing-along. Once again, these are contrasted with softer, gentler, altogether more low-key interludes, such as the prayer-like swoon of “Heaven Turns To” and the achingly lovely “Wandering.” Once again, these are tunes that will effortlessly lodge themselves in your head: contrary to its title, the lead single “Death of a Tune” has been a particularly insistent earworm over the last couple of weeks, as has the absurdly catchy title track.
For many of the confirmed diehards, this will be a more than ample extension of the band’s undeniable capacity to entrance and delight. However, and much as it hurts to say so, rather than winning over new converts, AWOO’s main achievement might be to delineate, skilfully but inescapably, the outer boundaries of its creators’ artistic reach.
The Victorian English Gentlemens Club / Das Wanderlust – The Social, Nottingham, Wednesday September 20
One of the first hurdles that any ambitious new act must face is the three-quarters empty room. Last night at The Social, this young Cardiff three-piece faced a largely deserted main floor, with a couple of dozen more punters scattered bashfully towards the back of the room. How a band chooses to respond to such a dispiriting turn-out is crucial, and a significant test of their future potential.
In the case of the support act, Das Wanderlust, the answer lay in treating the gig like a cheery warm-up session in front of a bunch of mates. Clearly under-rehearsed, and suffering from the lack of a sound-check due to traffic problems on the Nuthall Road, they jokily confessed to all of this and more, with an appealing self-deprecation that helped to gloss over their deficiencies.
The Victorian English Gentlemens Club took the opposite approach. Fixing us with unnervingly blank, wide-eyed stares, they doggedly trashed away as if this small midweek gig was their most important showcase to date.
The band specialises in jerky art-school indie-rock, mixing British new wave influences (Wire, early XTC) with the stylistic feel of US acts such as The Pixies and The Breeders. Hell, they even have a song called “Cannonball”.
Their twenty-eight minute set eclipsed even their self-titled debut album for brevity. Sadly, the forthcoming single “Impossible Sightings Over Shelton” is destined to win them few new fans. Better by far was the early B-side “My Son Spells Backwards”, which deserves an urgent re-promotion.
Detroit soul man Amp Fiddler earned his first break with George Clinton’s band in the 1980s. More recently, he has been building his reputation as a solo artist, thanks to 2004’s Waltz Of A Ghetto Fly – a “slow burner”, which picked up steady sales via word-of-mouth recommendations.
With his oversized white Kangol cap perched on top of his unruly Afro, Fiddler cuts a nifty, Sly Stone-esque dash on stage. Seated in front of his keyboards, with a four-piece band behind, he radiates an amiable, laid-back bonhomie which is matched by the uncommonly good-natured late twenties/early thirties crowd.
The band specialises in the sort of mid-paced soul/funk which was popularised by Stevie Wonder in the mid-1970s. It’s impeccably played, and suitably reverential to its roots. At its best, it tilts towards Jamie Lidell’s smoking future-funk. At its worst, it slides towards Jamiroquai’s samey blandness.
Fiddler’s vocal style is the weakest link. Although somewhat reminiscent of the great Bill Withers, his range is limited, and his expressive power weak. Instead, it’s left to the band to provide a solid, danceable groove. Unfortunately, the lack of variety swiftly palls.
In order to take things to the next level, Fiddler needs to add something fresh, rather than sheltering in retro stylings. The material from his new album, Afro Strut, could just as easily have appeared three years ago – or even fifteen years ago. Until then, he will have to be satisfied with playing to the converted at cosy, unchallenging gigs such as this.