Review: A welcome return

The Amazing Rhythm Aces The Borderline, London

John Collis
Monday 11 May 1998 00:02

The finest bar band of the Seventies was a well-kept secret, too versatile to maintain a chart identity, too laid back to submit to hype. British groups such as Brinsley Schwarz and Bees Make Honey filled the London pubs with a home-grown version of their sound, but the great originals stayed in America. The Amazing Rhythm Aces' back-line sound came direct from Willie Mitchell's Hi Records studio, home of Al Green and Ann Peebles. The guitar and organ swirled together as if played by seasoned Stax sessionmen, but on the next number they could sound like Sun rockabilly heroes.

The synthesis, however, was all their own, given its identity by Russell Smith's remarkable voice, croaking its way through one bar, soaring out of sight on the next. The band epitomised blue-eyed southern country soul, seasoned with Smith's wry sense of humour. A trio of hits, "Third Rate Romance", "Amazing Grace (Used to be Her Favorite Song)" and "The End is not in Sight", was not enough to pay the bills, and in 1980 they went their own ways.

After 15 years they decided to try again, and the re-formed Aces include four originals - Smith, bassist Jeff "Stick" Davis and keyboard players Billy Farhcart and James Hooker. Drummer Butch McDade would have completed the pack, but alas, he is undergoing treatment for cancer. He is replaced by Michael Organ, and the Nineties band also includes guitarist Kelvin Holly. On Tuesday, after festivals in Switzerland and Ireland, they played their first-ever London gig, on the back of a new CD, Out of the Blue. The Borderline is their natural home, a small Charing Cross Road country- rock club which, like so many pub venues of old, sports a huge pillar in the centre of the floor. Fortunately, the acoustics are far better than the sight lines.

It was worth the wait. Even a 25-year wait. Smith, built like a bullfrog, is a natural showman, and though his voice may have lost the very top of its range it remains a remarkably expressive vehicle. It needs to be, since behind the down-home humour and slick, elegant musicianship lie some of the most affecting of all love songs. "Burning the Ballroom Down", which the band casually put third in the running order, is perhaps their masterpiece. With similar skill, "Della's Long Brown Hair" encapsulates a complete relationship in three pared-down verses. But while you stifle a manly sob, the band is already yee-hawing through "Rednecks Unplugged".

Out of the Blue is the band's first collection of new songs since 1980, and it is as if they have never been away. When Smith glides into the first major chord change on "Love's On the Way", the ghost of Otis Redding is standing beside him. Maybe the economics of running an unfashionable group will be no better this time round, but in an ideal world rock'n'roll would always be this good.

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