The Boo Radleys: as not seen on TV
Sunday 15 September 1996
There was no need: the Boos have done it themselves. Their new album, C'Mon Kids (Creation), has Martin Carr's usual four-melodies-per-song value-for-money, but is too busy mixing a Molotov cocktail of rhythms, styles, samples and effects to waste time genuflecting to Motown and the Beatles.
Of the first seven songs the group played at the Kilburn National on Thursday, six were from C'Mon Kids. The other one was, inevitably, "Wake Up Boo!", but it was given the roughing-up it deserved: the pre-C'mon Kids material stood out like a stiff-suited executive in a moshpit next to the inspired anarchy of "Bullfrog Green", which changes colour from psychedelic pop to industrial metal, and "What's in the Box?", a histrionic hint of how Nirvana might have sounded had they been influenced by Queen.
Sice is still a weak singer, but put his voice together with Carr's harmonies and distort the two of them beyond recognition, and it hardly matters. The Boo Radleys are still no showmen, but the music was well worth the entrance fee. Especially as - fingers crossed - we won't hear too much of it on the radio and TV.
The 11 scariest words you can hear at a rock concert are: "We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back." They are scary because they are usually spoken after you have already sat through 80 minutes of music, and because that music has usually been made by Phil Collins or Pink Floyd. In Wembley Arena on Tuesday, the words came from Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, who have come right back to British stages after a short break of 22 years. In this case, then, it was only fair to their fans that they put on a long show.
It started, appropriately enough, with the springy riff of "Do It Again", arranged for a nine-piece band, including two backing singers in regulation miniskirts and tambourines. Fagen and Walter Becker sauntered on from the wings and played some new material and some tracks from their solo albums, The Nightfly (Fagen) and 11 Tracks of Whack (Becker), but most of the songs were from "the deep Seventies", as Fagen put it. At times tonight, I wondered if "the shallow Seventies" wouldn't have been a more apposite phrase. The rhythm section didn't have the laid-back, rolling, funky motion that Steely Dan have on vinyl (the drummer's efforts to compensate by playing two drum solos in the first 15 minutes didn't help) and despite the clear sound quality, you couldn't make out the celebrated, cynical New-Yorkers-in-LA lyrics - the Steely irony, as it were. We were left with sterile jazz pop, which soon gets wearing for all its syncopated chord changes and impeccably snazzy musicianship.
However, the characteristics one is inclined to criticise in a band who reform after years of drug abuse and domestic bliss - they're slick and clinical, they're rigidly orchestrated, the solos last forever, the original members aren't young and sexy, they rely on a crowd of session sidemen - were Steely Dan trademarks the first time round. On Tuesday, they rendered these trademarks with style, dignity and an expensive lightshow, so I'd have to concede that the reasons I didn't enjoy the concert very much were probably the reasons that most Dan fans did.
Alas, poor Roundhouse! A cross between Shakespeare's Globe and the Albert Hall, it was originally used for trains to turn around in, was most famously used as a rock venue, has been used only sporadically since 1978, and has recently hosted a few gigs before its doors shut again, perhaps for good.
Possibly the last ever gig there was Monday's appearance by another great British institution, the Barking bard, Billy Bragg. He has just released an excellently titled new album, William Bloke (Cooking Vinyl). Braggettes can be reassured that in the five years he's been away he hasn't gone jungle, but has produced a typically high-quality collection of, in his words, "soppy love songs ["Brickbat", "The Fourteenth of February"], leftish politics ["From Red to Blue", "A Pict Song"] and football metaphors ["Goalhanger"]". He has also retreated from the more commercial pop sound that Johnny Marr and REM's Michael Stipe and Peter Buck helped bring to Don't Try This At Home. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a less commercial sound than that of the loud, messy guitar with which he accompanied himself on Monday.
The spectre of Alan Parker Urban Warrior haunted those mauled vowels as he assured us that the toilet facilities were the same for both artiste and punters, but Bragg is quite capable of sending up his persona without anyone else's help. He revised "New England" so that the lyrics cutesily reflected his change of status from New Lad to New Dad: "I'm not looking for a New England, I'm just looking for a decent baby-sitter." If he fancied it, he could be a reasonable comic. Even now, his songs can resemble stand- up routines inasmuch as the jokes and slogans are plain on the first listen, and there's not quite enough beauty in them to call you back more than once or twice. Still, his songwriting is as intelligent and heartfelt as ever, and the faithful will have no trouble keeping their faith. The Roundhouse may close, Labour may be new, but Bragg remains constant.
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