Blues Explosion, Shepherds Bush Empire London

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The Independent Culture

They may have rebranded, but this was business as usual for the band formerly known as The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

They may have rebranded, but this was business as usual for the band formerly known as The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The group changed their name to recognise the input of all three members, but the frontman still held court in his very own medicine show.

For well over a decade now, the Explosion have peddled their own mix of Neanderthal rock'n'roll and primitive, pre-Stax R&B. In fact, there was so little blues in their sound, you might think that part of the moniker could have gone first. Over time, they have added more funk to the brew and leant more towards hip-hop production, yet at the heart has remained Jon Spencer's southern soulman persona.

When the band started, some critics thought it odd to have a New York punk singing in such a style, but now he is a clear precursor not only of the current crop of blues rockers, Jet and Kings of Leon among them, but also the showmanship of The Hives. To their credit, the Explosion have never been content merely to be a retro act. Such gradual progression has culminated in Damage, their most fully realised album for some time.

It manages to be innovative while maintaining the band's raw intensity, thanks in part to the sterling work of its producers, especially hip-hop gurus DJ Shadow and Dan The Automator, who fill out the band's sound while keeping the trio at its heart. On stage, though, there was no room for turntables or extraneous effects, just three men getting down and dirty. Russell Simins still hammered his drum kit into submission, yet thanks to mixing with the hip-hop fraternity he has become more supple, if not subtle. Judah Bauer remained one of the most unassuming lead guitarists in rock, despite his ability to move elegantly from lumpen riff to virtuoso solo.

That left the stage free for Spencer and his extraordinary arsenal of howls and yelps. Constantly in motion, his favourite move was to squat on spring-loaded legs before bouncing back up to the mike. He could testify like the best of them, especially when he was knelt down, bent over, like some preacher exorcising his own demons.

This was fine for the basic numbers "2Kindsa Love" and "Sweat", but Spencer's shtick chewed up the band's latter, more melodic work. Escaping his vocal tics were a stripped-down version of the anti-war tune "Hot Gossip", here without Chuck D on vocals, and the sinister "Help These Blues"; though such moments of acuity were far and few between. The Mercury nominee Martina Topley-Bird, a guest vocalist on Damage, emerged late on to add some grace to the slow-burning "Spoiled" and a dynamite "You Been My Baby", a rare intrusion into the Blues Explosion's hermetically sealed world.

None of these numbers, though, were as memorable as the man himself. Seeing him in the flesh swept away any thoughts about the postmodernism and irony inherent in his act, but it also overshadowed the songs.

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