The Bees, Northumbria University, Newcastle

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The Independent Culture

Beards, beanies and bandannas - when the band of multi-instrumentalists that constitute The Bees come on stage, they seem more like a bunch of organic farmers than the idiots savants of roots-pop that we had been promised.

Beards, beanies and bandannas - when the band of multi-instrumentalists that constitute The Bees come on stage, they seem more like a bunch of organic farmers than the idiots savants of roots-pop that we had been promised. But over 15 songs, they deliver a set that is breathtaking and frustrating in equal parts. At times they trace the hidden lines between Grand Funk Railroad, The Small Faces and Soft Machine, and at others they slip into a clever, angular blues cul-de-sac.

The blues is a central theme of the evening. Before The Bees' set, the trio Little Barrie play an astounding collection of bluesy-soul future classics. Sounding not unlike Hendrix covering The Temptations, they succeed in capturing the essence of the Delta and bottling it in a contemporary garage brew.

Where Little Barrie offer up deftly crafted, modernist takes on rock's foundation stones, The Bees attempt to shoehorn disparate styles into a blues-and-soul framework. Tracks such as the opening "Punchbag" and "Wash in the Rain" fuse smooth Robert Wyatt-esque vocals with loping grooves, tinkling MOR jazz ivories and flourishes of trumpet. It's fusion with a discomfiting effect, as off-kilter, obtuse rhythms play counterpoint with smooth harmonies.

Much of The Bees' style comes from their background on the Isle of Wight. In the late Nineties, a hugely influential homegrown scene took the magpie, mix-and-match ideology of trip hop and applied it to jazz, funk world music and ambient à la Eno. The resulting albums, by artists such as Fretless AZM, Universal Being and Pnu Riff, an early incarnation of The Bees, were a brash, invigorating journey into disjointed funk.

The sound of the Isle of Wight, then, informs The Bees' music throughout. It's there in the one-note riffing, the odd time-shifts and the disassociated melodies. But The Bees are at their best when they apply such muso aspirations to the pop field and leave the Isle of Wight commune behind. Take the funk-fuelled groove of "Angryman", in which the band build on a Funkadelic-style riff, adding layers of simple trumpets (by the only band member not wearing beards, beanies or bandannas) and occasional overblown guitar solos (by a bandanna-wearing axeman who looks like he's on sabbatical from Hawkwind).

Elsewhere, "These Are the Ghosts" has a simple theme building into something quite panoramic, and "A Minha Menina" is a joyous Portuguese sing-along that has the crowd stumbling along to the words, if not the tune. On the downside, "Chicken Payback", an encore, displays the band at their worst, a litany of in-jokes (musical, thematic and lyrical) and an arrangement that has "too clever by half" written all over it. It's a song that you probably have to come from the Isle of Wight to enjoy. For the rest of us, its tiresome.

Thankfully, such moments of self-indulgence are few. Indeed, with gems such as "One Glass of Water" and the aching lament of "I Love You", The Bees prove that, beyond the hippie-gone-jazz shenanigans (Gong are, I'm sure, required listening for anyone joining this band), they are capable of creating some of the finest hobo pop you're likely to hear.

Touring to 27 October

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