The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Trinity Centre, Bristol <br/> Ray LaMontagne, Symphony Hall Birmingham

This is a job for Supergroup!
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

That we would all die in a nuclear holocaust was, if you grew up during the 1980s, not merely a possibility: it was an inevitability. We were, to quote Paul Simonon's old band The Clash, living in "Armagideon Time". You can hear that dread in Joy Division and the goth scene; you can hear it in The Specials, notably on their peerless second album More Specials; and you could hear its delayed reverberation during the Nineties in Tricky. It's no coincidence that Damon Albarn, most definitely a child of the Eighties, has just made an album which carries heavy echoes of both More Specials, and Tricky's Pre-Millennium Tension. The eponymous debut by The Good, The Bad And The Queen - Albarn on vocals and piano, Simonon on bass, Simon Tong from The Verve/late-period Blur on guitar, and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, of Fela Kuti's Africa 70, on drums - is a phantasmal miasma of old-fashioned music hall, dub reggae, circus huckster tunes and existential terror, with startling lines like "Drink all day/'Cos the country's at war".

The line-up is, in part, fanboyish fantasy fulfilment on Albarn's part. You can see it during Simonon's encore of "Guns of Brixton" when Damon is grinning his head off and gives Paul a little kiss. It is the punk survivor's main moment in the spotlight, although when "Kingdom of Doom" suddenly bursts into a "London Calling" bassline, his muscle memory kicks in and he starts throwing Clashy shapes. Similarly, Allen is under-used here - there's very little in TGTBATQ's percussion that a standard rock drummer couldn't or wouldn't do, and Allen could do it in his sleep.

So it may be a supergroup on paper but TGTBATQ is very much Albarn's baby, and he's a stern parent. Famously, he bad-temperedly ordered his bandmates to "focus" during their debut gig at the Roundhouse. Tonight he's more good-natured when restarting "Herculean" after a fumbled intro ("Oi, oi, oi, I'm not having that! This is supposed to be a professional outfit, comprising some fairly notable musicians...") but later almost loses his rag when the synth player (a dead ringer for Graham Coxon from where I'm standing) is out of tune. He calms himself by tootling on a melodica, the instrument which has said "dub" ever since white guys first discovered Augustus Pablo.

Simonon's amp is draped in a red, gold and green flag; Albarn's in a perpendicular Union Jack: TGTBATQ summed up in semaphore. Overhead are strings of bunting, reminiscent of 1977 and 1981 (both very TGTBATQ years, when you think about it). The backdrop, meanwhile, is an LS Lowry townscape with satellite dishes, not smoke, coming out of the chimneys. This project is all about the way keepsakes of olden times haunt a grim present (like Winston Smith's paperweight in Nineteen Eighty-Four), and shape one's paranoia of the future. There are even ghosts of Victoriana in the shape of a top-hatted string section, contrasted with an Islamic rapper who ambles on at the end as though Albarn is cannily acknowledging the racial make-up of modern London, not the London of 25 years ago.

Some people, of course, could do with a little less haunting by the past. When Ray LaMontagne growls "Yesterday is gone, yesterday is dead/Get it through your head", you wonder if he ever listens to his own advice.

LaMontagne is a practitioner of alt.country with a juicily authentic backstory. After a peripatetic childhood in which he sometimes slept in a chicken coop, he once went six months without seeing daylight, working in a shoe factory (strike me down if I make a "sweet sole music" pun). When he sings "Can you see the working classes trudging through their days?", he knows whereof he speaks. The blokes behind me exchange awestruck tales of how LaMontagne lives in a log cabin "fashioned by his own hands".

His lyrics display an unusual emotional literacy ("Don't put your trust in walls/Cos they will only crush you when they fall" is just one line which leaps out), perhaps earmarking him as a Leonard Cohen for the Noughties. His main selling point is a larynx which produces a similarly effortless husky stage-whisper, then suddenly, startlingly, roars. Under the simplest of blue lights, with no backdrop, his permanently sedentary band at times strum their way to a repetitive hypnotic drone quality, like the Velvet Underground via Galaxie 500. Other songs have a Muscle Shoals soulfulness; others achieve a cheesecloth funkiness like Little Feat or Climax Blues Band. It feels like it's 1975 and punk hasn't happened.

People are looking for something here, something unreconstructed and pre-ironic. They're seeking vicarious salvation through the presence of Ray; wishing themselves to be improved and rendered more profound by simple virtue of listening to him sing.

Me, I'd rather stay shallow and damned.

s.price@independent.co.uk

Comments