By George! The Beatles are Bjorn again
Rock: It's official; Kula Shaker prove that George Harrison is now to be taken seriously. So how long till Ringo gets a tribute band?
Sunday 19 January 1997
The hippy hippy shakers delivered a slick yet dynamic show. The tireless drumming and Sir Paul-style bass were as dizzying as the kaleidoscope of lights and images - some of which weren't associated with the Beatles. There were a few too many indistinct funk-rock numbers, but the cherubic Crispian Mills sang and played guitar with sweaty conviction.
Just to reinforce their allegiance to the Beatles, the four-piece opened with a souped-up "Baby, You're a Rich Man". They moved on to their own songs afterwards, but the nagging impression was that those were cover versions, too, and that Kula Shaker were a kind of Bjorn Again with lovebeads. After all, how many people actually take Mills's vague spiritual pronouncements seriously, Mystic Meg fans excepted?
Thirty years ago, the sound of a sitar on a pop record evoked the magical East. Now, the sound of a sitar on a pop record evokes the songs you skip on Sergeant Pepper. Likewise, while having hit singles whose lyrics are in Sanskrit and Hindi is both an unique achievement and a testament to an adventurous spirit, Kula fans are less likely to go along with the mix-and-match mysticism than they are to sing along and think: isn't it clever how they sound just like a real psychedelic band? Underworld's "Born Slippy", say, could be called genuine contemporary psychedelia, whereas the off-the-peg brand sported by Kula Shaker is no longer exploratory, it's an imitable, self-conscious genre. The gig's most hazy, trippy episode was "Jerry Was There", and that song admits it's only a joke.
There's no doubt that the band have mastered the performing side of things. Now Mills must back up his melodic talent with some recognisable emotional content if he doesn't want his songs to sound like a pasticheur's exercises. If possible, he should look less scrubbed and styled, too. "You treat me like a woman when I feel like a man," he roars on "Hey Dude". Yes, Crispian, but you look like a boy.
The other big retro band of the week were Georgia's Black Crowes, who are often disparaged for copying their rootsy Southern rock'n'roll from the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Copying Kula Shaker, though, is taking things too far. On Monday, a multi-armed Eastern goddess was painted on the backdrop, and a sitar tape twanged and twirled before the show. I don't think Chris Robinson was singing in Sanskrit, but as I couldn't understand a word he hollered, I can't guarantee it.
If the Crowes were trying to lend the Bristol Colston Hall a loose and mellow atmosphere, they were battling impossible odds. Despite its name, the Hall is an old-fashioned theatre, complete with a tinkling bell to warn the audience when it's time to take their stiff-backed seats. A few songs in, though, I realised that only a bad rock-star blames his venues. If the gig-goers seemed more like play-goers, it was because the music deteriorated once guitar replaced sitar.
The Black Crowes are very proud of their hard-won technical dexterity - Eddie Harsch plays a mean electric piano - but they've been so busy wearing their fingers to the bone in the rehearsal studio that they haven't got round to writing any tunes. Almost every song was mid-paced and unfocused, never reaching any kind of climax, and never stretching beyond the band's influences. A walk down the Crowe Road is no substitute for Exile on Main Street.
Chris Robinson, whose elongated frame makes Jarvis Cocker look like Robbie Williams on a bad day, attempted some stumblebum dancing. His bandmates should change their name to the Black Dodoes. They're zombies, and who can blame them? One hundred minutes of their torturous music left me stultified, and they've had to listen to it for years.
As it happens, their fourth album, Three Snakes and One Charm (American Recordings), has plenty of heart, soul and muscle, so it may be just their ponderous live show that needs work. It might have helped slightly if they'd borrowed some of Kula Shaker's Carnaby Street fashions. In the Nineties, when pop stars wear kagoules on TV, and every known garment can be justified as kitsch or ironic or so-bad-it's-good, it's not easy to look utterly, shockingly unstylish. The Black Crowes manage it.
Motorhead are retro too in a sense, but only because, musically, they haven't budged an inch in over 20 years. Lemmy has effectively written the same song over and over again - revving T-Rex riffs played at seven times the speed, then the song title bellowed a couple of times for the chorus - and the draft entitled "Ace of Spades" still sounds better than all the others. At the London Astoria last Sunday, the man who theologists confirm as having the voice of Satan himself had a relatively new guitarist and drummer to back up his brutal fuzz-bass chords. None the less, Motorhead make the Ramones seem like restless sonic explorers.
Judging by the number of beer cans thrown on stage, this straightforward and slightly boring show seemed to please the fans. For the rest of us, there was little of note except that the lovably cantankerous 51-year- old has finally shaved off his moustache.
Kula Shaker: Glasgow Barrowlands (0141 552 4601), Mon & Tues; Academy, SW9 (0171 924 9999), Thurs & Fri; then touring. Black Crowes: Southampton Guildhall (01703 632601), tonight; then touring in Feb.
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