De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, Mon 16th Nov
“Bexhill!” bellows main man Mike Scott at the climax of their first number. Mischievously aware that this is not the most rock'n'roll word to shout. But the gag turns out to be double-edged.
Last time they played these halls it was to revisit the classic album 'Fisherman's Blues'. Their best-known era consisted of Celtic folk with a side-order of Americana. This set starts, closes and is dominated by new numbers. (Not just taking up over a third of the set, but front-loaded in the running order.)
Last time, I made a gag about a Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman getting together. This time every member of the band, bar Scott and the fiddle of stalwart Steve Wickham, is a Yank. While the latest album, 'Modern Blues', was recorded in Nashville. An album which may well be best described by the band's own website, as “an electric, soulful, bold, freewheeling rock'n'roll record with a skinful of killer new songs”. The jacketed bass player looks remarkably like a solicitor from small-town Surrey, and makes John Entwistle look a master of stage moves. Yet he turns out to be David Hood, from the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section the Swampers.
In short, Scott truly is bringing rock'n'roll to Bexhill. A band who should have long since been stuck on cruise control come up with the most kick-ass, rootsy rock'n'roll you've heard in a long time. “I'm still a freak,” Scott sings. “I never went straight.” Wheezy, swirly organ suffuses each track, sounding like a log fire feels – like being bathed in warmth. Almost every number goes into a wig-out instrumental section, which gets unhinged even by Waterboys standards.
Even when they turn to old numbers, they get swept up in this new fervour. 'Medicine Bow, stirring and expansive in the original, is now fiery and propulsive. Then, in a fiddle-dominated coda, turns into something from the Cale-era Velvets. They even do the double from their last appearance, and provide the second time I've actually liked the hit 'Glastonbury Song'. In fact its the more traditional version of 'Whole of the Moon' which doesn't quite spark up.
Perhaps the most crucial thing is that, even as it proudly wears the influence of the great music of the past to the point of name-checking influences, its never referential. Scott is simply taking the music he likes and making more of it. Reviewing the album in the equally rock'n'roll Telegraph, Neil McCormick suggests “Scott is perhaps the closest thing we have to a Neil Young figure in British music, ranging across folk, blues and country.” And he probably is.
Its one thing to see a longstanding band and be cheered they're still coming up with decent material. Its another to walk out thinking “these guys should really be planning a live album right now. This stuff needs getting down.”
Scott's mission to take rock'n'roll to unlikely places continues with this version of 'Still A Freak' from Brussels...
...plus, from Bexhill itself, Fisherman's Blues' for the encore. With added “whoo-ho-hoos” from the audience...