Yat-Kha, Ronnie Scott's, London
Tuesday 13 September 2005
The album of Western pop and rock cover versions, Re-covers, that Kuvezin and his band, Yat-Kha, released this year may have been too hard to swallow for some, but it makes more sense in this live context. Isolated audience chuckles may bear witness to the fact that we Brits still find it hard to wrap our heads around new (or new to us) musical forms, but the band seem unfazed and even amused by our amusement.
They break us in (relatively) gently with the Irish folk song "Will You Go, Lassie, Go?" - further developed from the album's a cappella version, being made more palatable with subtle guitar and percussion touches.
But then the bassist, Scipio, and the drummer and Rasputin lookalike, Evgeniy Tkachov, take things up a gear or two, and we experience the full force of this formidable band. Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks" - a song already refracted through Led Zeppelin's heavy-blues vision - takes a further U-turn, sounding decidedly Waitsian (damn, I wasn't going to mention Tom Waits) in its sonic waywardness. In fact, every song Yat-Kha get their hands on becomes a very distant cousin of its source material, with just enough family characteristics to make you give it a warm smile of recognition once you've named that tune. So, twisted sisters of "Black Magic Woman", "Play with Fire" and Captain Beefheart's "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" keep the audience chuckling and cheering by turn.
The only time this cavalier approach to our pop canon isn't so successful is when they uncharacteristically produce a less intense version of the original. So that a sentimental, acoustic treatment of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is rather a damp squib. But "Exodus" sounded wonderful - it shared little more than its lyrics with Bob Marley's original, but loped along with its own brazen confidence, and featured a sublime, rasping igil solo (a two-stringed cello-type instrument) from Sholban Mongush.
There is no question that Yat-Kha have something extraordinary to offer music fans. It just remains to be seen if they can escape the novelty-act trap that Re-covers may create, but build on the attention it has got them. There was plenty of exciting original material performed, demonstrating they have more to offer than just fairground-mirror versions of familiar songs.
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