Despite the recent loss of its three biggest names – Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González and Compay Segundo – the Buena Vista show rolls on, with star billing passed to four other key members. All are respected elder statesmen of the Cuban scene, who have enjoyed a new lease of life following the remarkable explosion of worldwide interest in their music.
Leading a frisky three-piece brass section, with a nice line in nifty (if occasionally shaky) formation dance steps, we had veteran trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal. Over on double bass, Cachaito López bears the unique distinction of having played on every track on every album in the Buena Vista series. Trombonist Jesús “Aguaje” Ramos – a spirited, commanding presence – doubled up as band leader. Clearly suffering from some unfortunate finger trouble, guitarist Manuel Galbán kept a low-key profile, only once taking centre stage.
The twelve piece band – natty in their double-breasted suits, and with an average age of at least seventy – also featured a younger pianist called Orlando, whose comparatively youthful vigour added an important extra dimension. His pounding, emphatic solos were rapturously received.
With no unifying backbeat to rely on, the rolling, fluid rhythms folded into each other, underpinned by rump-shaking basslines that all but begged you to get up and dance. In the overly reverential confines of the Royal Concert Hall, this proved impossible until the closing numbers – at which point, urged to our feet by the band, the whole atmosphere loosened up. If only we had lost our British reserve a little earlier.
Following an impressive support slot on Amy Winehouse’s recent UK tour, many curious eyes will be focussing on this debut from Oxford English literature graduate Mr Hudson and his band.
Those hoping for an accurate representation of the live shows might be in for a slight disappointment. This is a noticeably tamed version of their sound, with much of the liveliness and funkiness reined in. Instead, what we have is an amiable collection of melodic, accessible pop-rock, whose downright politeness sits easy on the ear.
Thanks to the relaxed, conversational, bloke-ish vocals and the light, sparse ska and trip-hop influences, comparisons with Lily Allen, Just Jack, Plan B and The Streets are inevitable. Other influences stretch further back: to Paul Weller, Joe Jackson, Tom Robinson – and, as a reworked version of On The Street Where You Live (from My Fair Lady) demonstrates, to the era of the classic Hollywood movie.
Some distinctive and gorgeous piano work brightens up the sound, but the album’s overall mood remains low key and easy-going, with an increasingly mellow and reflective quality in the second half.
This time three years ago, largely thanks to the underground classic Losing My Edge, LCD Soundsystem’s pioneering “dance-punk” sound was perched at the very apex of cool. Following an uneven, over-hyped debut album, the bleeding-edge fashionistas may have moved on – but the band have stayed more or less in the same place musically, and sound all the better for sticking to their guns and refining their basic stylistic template.
Sound Of Silver might be less club-heavy, but it’s also more cohesive and purposeful. The straightforwardly chugging back-beats are augmented by skittering, understated details, and topped with James Murphy’s arch lyrics and clenched, moody chants. At times, the vocals seem to be deliberate pastiches of Murphy’s heroes: Davids Byrne and Bowie, and the Human League’s Phil Oakey. The early 1980s post-punk influences are still there, but the occasional nods to moody Chicago house add something fresh to the mix.
The sardonic North American Scum is an obvious standout. So is the compelling, addictive All My Friends, which repeats a single piano chord for over seven minutes. This is dance music for grown-ups, and it’s an absolute delight.
Of all the British guitar bands which came to prominence during the mid-1990s, Suede’s musical legacy remains the most underrated. Following the band’s disappointing final album in 2002, and a vain attempt to re-capture former glories by re-uniting with guitarist Bernard Butler as The Tears in 2005, former Suede front man Brett Anderson has finally decided to launch himself as a solo artist. At this stage in his career, this could be make or break time.
Perhaps for this reason, the album plays it very safe in musical terms. This is a clear move into “adult contemporary” territory, pitched at an audience who will have grown up with Anderson, jettisoning brash twenty-something hedonism in favour of tasteful thirty-something Angst Lite. The eleven songs are mostly mid-paced, vaguely wistful in tone, and augmented by politely swelling string arrangements.
The overall effect is reminiscent of Richard Ashcroft’s similarly problematic solo work, following the demise of The Verve. The overall sound is pleasant enough, and Anderson’s vocals have never sounded stronger – but the songs simply aren’t there. This is thin, forgettable stuff, which half-heartedly strives for profundity, but simply ends up sounding tired and forced.
It’s always good to see a support act find the right audience, and Mr Hudson & The Library were ideally suited to Amy Winehouse’s good-natured, receptive crowd. Their prime asset was pianist Torville Jones, whose alternately rippling and pounding flurries sat well with the band’s melodic, likeable pop-rock. Funky hip-hop drumming and steel-pan percussion were blended with blokey, conversational “awright geezah” vocals, and distinct echoes of Joe Jackson at his peak.
Amy Winehouse cut a surprisingly petite figure on stage. Dressed in a tiny pink crop-top, her size-zero frame topped by that extraordinary, gravity-defying beehive hairdo, she delivered a controlled, assured performance, with none of the unhinged excesses that you might have expected from recent press reports. Her razor-sharp tongue was only unleashed once, in response to an over-excited woman at the front who screamed “I want your babies!”
“You want my babies?” she retorted, coolly arching an eyebrow. “Who let Madonna in?”
Backed by an eight-piece band, immaculate in sharp black suits and skinny ties, Amy’s show was equal parts supper-club cabaret and Stax soul revue. As such, it seamlessly combined the jazzier material from her debut album and the sharper girl-group stylings from the chart-topping Back To Black, beefing up the former and smoothing the edges off the latter. The vocal performance was sublime: languid and flirty, smooth and dirty, and perfectly pitched for the material.
The set climaxed with Back To Black’s opening three numbers, played in reverse order: Me And Mr Jones, a truly stunning You Know I’m No Good, and the inevitable Rehab. For the encore, the 2-Tone revivalist knees-up of Monkey Man (Toots & The Maytals/The Specials) was followed by a splendidly sassy reworking of The Zutons’ Valerie.
Rock City was lucky indeed to catch this rising star in such an appropriately intimate setting.
Unlike other tribute bands, Genesis disciples The Musical Box take their devotion to the absolute extremes of historical accuracy. Every last detail of the band’s 1973 Selling England By The Pound tour is faithfully reproduced: not just the music, but also costumes, masks, backdrops, slides, and Peter Gabriel’s eccentric little speeches between songs.
The problem with this approach is that it kills any chance of spontaneity. Consequently, the show felt frozen in time, as if we were watching moving waxworks. However, for the real Genesis, the 1970s were a period of experimentation. This was, after all, “progressive” rock. To have their music portrayed in this way felt oddly regressive, and perhaps against their original spirit.
There again, as one of the old songs has it, “I know what I like, and I like what I know.” Thirty-four years on, the prog-rock crowd has inevitably become more conservative. There’s a comfort in hearing the familiar, and rolling back the years. And in any case, classic epics such as Supper’s Ready still deserve to be heard live, where their full power can be unleashed.
This crowd certainly knew what they liked, giving the band a standing ovation and roaring their appreciation.
Unlike many tribute acts, whose sometimes embarrassingly creaky impersonations don’t tend to earn them much in the way of artistic respect, The Musical Box’s astonishingly accurate re-creations of Genesis tours from the mid-1970s have brought them wide acclaim – not least from the original members of Genesis themselves. In advance of their Selling England By The Poundshow at the Royal Concert Hall next week, EG spoke to the band’s “Phil Collins” figure, the French-Canadian drummer Martin Levac.
The Musical Box are particularly known for the painstaking level of authentic detail which they apply to their performances. How did they set about doing their research?
“The original source material belongs to our artistic director, Serge Morissette. He’s a big Genesis fan, and he has been collecting things over the years: pictures, videos and live tapes. He put this all together, and we reproduced things as exactly as we could.”
Since video hadn’t really taken off in the 1970s, was there much footage available?
“Not much – but there are a couple of TV shows that they did at that time, with the Selling England songs, and also some footage from Shepperton Studios, where they recorded part of Selling England as a show. But for The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, for instance, it was much more difficult to get all these things together. Because they didn’t film anything, we had to scratch down very deep to get all the details.”
When scoring the music, does the band look to the recorded versions, or do they use the live versions from the bootleg tapes, which are sometimes significantly re-worked?
“The concept of The Musical Box is that visually, it’s a re-creation of the live shows – but musically, we want to get as close as possible to the records. So the parts we’re playing are from the original records, because everybody knows them. If we used the bootlegs, people wouldn’t recognise the exact same sounds that are played on the records. Genesis changed things as they went along – especially Phil Collins, who was a very jamming drummer. He had a very jazzy approach, so he used to change his parts all the time. He never played the same song twice the same way.”
Was there much input from Genesis fans? Did they have information to impart?
“Our musical director Serge is in touch with many people who are as crazy about Genesis as he is, so that’s been helpful over the years. In fact, it still is – because after this tour, we may plan to do A Trick of the Tail. Serge is working on this right now, getting all the visual stuff together.”
Considering that The Musical Box have always concentrated on the “classic” period from 1972 to 1975, this news comes as quite a surprise. After all, many Genesis fans felt that the band were never the same after Peter Gabriel’s departure…
“Times change. Back in 1975, when Phil Collins took the mike and came to the front of the stage, there were many people who simply quit Genesis and said it was never going to be the same. But there were also many others who discovered them in 1976-77. I spoke with a lot of fans, signing autographs after the gigs – and with everybody I spoke to, the message is always the same. They would be thrilled to see the Seconds Out tour, for instance. So, Trick of the Tail, Wind and Wuthering… and maybe in five or six years they would be thrilled to see Abacab, I don’t know…”
As the drummer – and therefore the guy who represents Phil Collins – would Martin also leave the drum kit and take over lead vocals for the 1976-77 material?
“Yes I would. We would go through auditions, to find a guy who looks and plays like Bill Bruford in 1976. Then our approach would have to be changed, so as to adapt some of the live versions of the songs.”
On the current tour, the song More Fool Me at the end of Selling England was sung by Phil. Is that a song that Martin performs on stage?
“Yes I do. It’s quite interesting to perform that, because the reaction is very warm. We didn’t expect it at first, because of that original rage against Collins when Gabriel left – but that seems to have disappeared over the years, and people are very pleased to hear More Fool Me every night. When we don’t do it, they shout out for it!”
Genesis fans have always been a difficult bunch to please, in any case. There was even hostility when I Know What I Like became a hit single in 1974, as it was seen as too blatantly “commercial” a move. Even Selling England By The Pound was originally compared unfavourably to its predecessor Foxtrot – and yet it’s now considered by many people to be the definitive album from the band’s prog-rock period.
“Exactly, and it’s the same with A Trick of the Tail. Personally it’s one of my favourites, because I think they went so far into the music. Songs like Dance On A Volcano, Robbery Assault and Battery – musically speaking, it’s very interesting.”
Over the past few years, nearly all of the original members of Genesis – including Peter Gabriel – have attended a Musical Box show. On one occasion, Phil Collins even performed with the band on stage. Collins has since admitted to feeling terrified at the time, as he felt he could no longer play the numbers with sufficient accuracy.
“He was very nervous – but we had a chat together, drummer to drummer, and it was cool. He told me that his chops as a drummer were at their peak in 1977 with Brand X – but since then, he’s been concentrating on writing songs, and playing back beats, and that’s what he enjoys doing now. He told me that back then, he had to prove himself as a good drummer. He would listen to jazz and fusion stuff – but after that, he became a pop fan, listening to Motown and so on.”
“He ended the conversation by saying: well Martin, I’m gonna try and make you proud of me tonight. I said: you’re making me proud by just being here today! He was very kind.”
Having earned that kind of testimonial, it’s no wonder that The Musical Box have been attracting die-hard Genesis fans in their droves, at major venues all across the world. And if their efforts have been deemed good enough for one of rock music’s most notoriously picky fan bases, then perhaps that’s the ultimate accolade of them all.
Following widely acclaimed historical round-ups of West African (Vol.1) and Congolese (Vol.2) musical styles, this exemplary series now turns its attentions southwards. Disc One traces the development of South African music from 1939 to 1998, covering all its best-known genres: Mbube, Kwela, Kwaito, and Mbaquanga, a.k.a. “township jive.” The emphasis is on dance grooves rather than song structures, and although over half the tracks rely on the exact same ascending three-chord sequence, the defiantly joyous spirit of the apartheid-era “shebeens” is equally all-pervading.
Disc Two, which splits equally between Zimbabwe and Zambia, is dominated by the sort of pealing, tumbling guitar lines which came to prominence in the mid ‘80s, via bands such as the Bhundu Boys. There’s less rawness and more fluidity, but the overall celebratory vibe is equally intoxicating.
Although they have been playing for under a year, and are juggling their musical activities with full-time degree courses, Los Campesinos! have already built up the sort of grassroots buzz that other, more career-minded young bands would kill for. As yet uncorrupted by success, the Cardiff seven-piece radiates a shambling, unforced charm which is hugely endearing.
Their songs are complex, cleverly worked affairs, stuffed full to bursting with tricksy arrangements, unexpected changes and literate, articulate lyrics. Despite all this precociousness, the material remains accessible, catchy and melodic. Yes, it’s as indie as indie gets – but there’s none of the sullen dourness which so often mars the genre. John Peel would have adored them, without a doubt. As one song puts it, their aim is “to find the perfect match between pretentious and pop”. You have to love them for it.
The band’s sound is propelled by fluid, chiming guitar runs, and augmented with violin, glockenspiel and melodica. Their short, energetic set climaxed with the crowd favourite and future classic You! Me! Dancing!, and the equally anthemic Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks. These are still early days, but their potential is huge. Once those finals are out of the way, there’ll be no stopping them.