Review: Bad-assed Nu Philly Soul

G.Love and Special Sauce Duchess of York, Leeds
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The history of rock and jazz is littered with white boys who want to be black men. And it would be easy to level the same accusation (if accusation it is) at G.Love, the showboating singer, guitarist and mouth-organist, and his band Special Sauce, comprising double bassist Jimmy "Jazz" Prescott and drummer Jeff "The Houseman" Clemens.

Over the course of three fine albums, the trio have nurtured a funky, shambling, good-time urban blues. The fact that each of G.Love and Special Sauce (1994), Coast to Coast Motel (1995) and Yeah, It's That Easy (1997) sound like they were laid down in the boot of a Chevy cruising the group's home town Philadelphia only adds another pleasingly grimy layer to their low-down, dirty sound. The myriad influences that percolate through Special Sauce are best reflected in G.Love's extraordinary vocals: a blues wail one minute, a patter of bad-assed rap the next, and all usually within the space of one number.

At first, though, Leeds is having none of it. No sooner have you noticed a photo of Oasis, snapped playing at the Duchess on their way up, than a regular reveals where he thinks any band must be from if they're not from round here: "You're not in London now! Play some proper Northern music!" The Watford Gap's as nothing compared with the cultural chasm G.Love and Special Sauce span tonight, however.

Last year's film comedy Swingers centred on the lives of a group of West Coast American twentysomething males for whom jazz and jiving were as much essentials of a night out as a session on the Nintendo was for a night in. Though they may loathe the comparison, G.Love, Prescott and Clemens hitch the influences of Jimmy Smith, Booker T and the MGs and the like to a hip-hop sensibility with a not dissimilar preppy cool. Prescott, for instance, thwacks and twangs his upright bass with modest virtuosity all evening, but there's an engineering PhD out there with his goatee on it. Nevertheless, the odd pork pie hat and abundance of hip knitwear on show in the audience suggest their "Nu Philly Soul" disposition isn't wholly confined to the States.

G.Love, every inch the 1940s bluesman in garish suit and wide-collared shirt, spends the night strutting to and fro, his swaggering voice lolloping, now a half-bar behind, now a half-bar ahead, of Special Sauce's equally languid musical gait. You might call it rap without the politicised attitude and blues without a preservation order, but that would suggest a lack of presence and musicianship, both of which the threesome have in spades.

If you're looking for comparisons, the Fun Lovin' Criminals' hip-hop mucking around is in the neighbourhood (the Criminals have re-mixed G.Love's new single) as is Ben Harper's faith in the blues as a living, breathing medium. The rollicking version of "Baby's Got Sauce" is a fine, slow-burning example of the former attitude, culminating in a bawdy exchange between G.Love and his "baby" played out on guitar and bass. As for the latter, "This Ain't Living" shows G.Love taking a gloomier view of the hoop-shooting and hangin' with the boys that the city usually represents for him to deliver a shuffling indictment of urban life's grind. Harper would no doubt take this as a chance to indulge in some collective anguish but G.Love wisely swamps the opaque social commentary "This Ain't Living" with the song's anthemic groove.

If it didn't suggest an accompanying dip in quality, you could say that G.Love and Special Sauce often descend into pastiche. It doesn't stop them being bloody good fun, however. Irresistible work-outs like "Soda Pop", "Sweet Sugar Mama" and the new single "Stepping Stones" never make any pretenses at lyrical sophistication and easily give way to the frazzled pleasures of G.Love's scat vocals and Special Sauce's bluesy jams. By the end of their two-and-a-half-hour set, the Philly boys had restored some soul to the North.

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