The last time I saw Hue and Cry play live was in May of 1989, when they were riding on the back of the success of their first two albums and “Ordinary Angel” was flying high in the British charts. They played to a packed Birmingham Town Hall and the Kane brothers looked every inch stars; I thought at the time they would end up being Britain’s greatest export and Pat Kane would be the next Elvis. Twenty years down the line and we have all grown (mostly sideways), and I approached tonight’s gig with great anticipation to see how much of their show would be just a nostalgia trip.
The first thing that struck me when entering the Academy 2, is that Hue and Cry can still pull in a crowd. Although not having commercial success for a long time, there is a healthy gathering of eager fans in the room, and when Pat and Greg arrive on stage with their 5 piece band there is a real warm welcoming cheer. Almost unrecognisable from the two young lads who first burst onto the scene in 1987, the brothers both sans hair, open with “Strength to Strength” from their debut album, and now it is clear that nothing has really changed. Pat’s voice is unmistakeable: clear and strong, soulful yet always sounding contemporary, and his quick sometimes conversational delivery of tight tongue twisting lyrics is a marvel to witness. He still bounds and ducks around the stage like a boxer, grooving and clearly loving being back on stage. And Greg’s intelligent arrangements and melodies complimenting his brother’s crooning vocal beautifully. The band, although not as full sounding as it was in the day, is still tight, and the complex rhythms and accents are played faultlessly.
“Ordinary Angel” is next and Pat dedicates it to the audience in a touching introduction. It is a great song, but having played the track for twenty years at home, it is noticeable that the two piece brass
section tonight cannot really compete with the version ingrained in my mind, and the performance seemed a little empty. This becomes noticeable as the song segues into “European Child” from their current release, and no one acknowledges it… well no one in the audience; the band are slightly gutted and I sense that neither Pat or Greg have yet built up the amount of confidence that oozed from them two decades ago. Nevertheless, they are acutely aware that as songwriters they have enough ammunition to keep firing all night and they do: “Labour of Love”, “Sweet Invisibility”, “My Salt Heart” and “Looking For Linda” (with an extended vocal section which is exceptional, despite the cardinal sin of saying “cigarettes” instead of “ciggies”), from their earlier albums are performed faultlessly. Pat’s vocals are given acres of room in the mix and he uses every inch, crooning, scatting, almost rapping at times with his sharp words and rhyming couplets.
The highlight for me came when they stripped everything down to just the two brothers, the voice and the piano. A beautiful rendition of “Mother Glasgow” that silenced an admittedly already quite reserved audience, followed by the awesome “Violently”, which left not a dry eye in the place. Certainly Pat and Greg’s gift for syncopation, contrast and dynamics is breathtaking and timeless, and it is when they wrap all that up in a melody and lyrics as glorious as “Violently” that you realise that
Hue and Cry have been sorely missed.
Of the new songs from their current album “Open Soul”, “Stumble Through the Dance” is as good as anything they have ever done. However, I am not blown over by the semi-political “Heading For a Fall”, which is too sweet and honey-wrapped in white boy plastic soul for my taste, and it is a bit too close in rhythm and horn arrangements to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” for comfort. Likewise with “Fireball” and their last song of the set “The Last Stop”, I just felt there is something lacking. I don’t mean it is not good, it just seemed too safe. The audience are more than pleased however, so what do I know? And following a short break, with the cheering and shouting for more that is a prerequisite of gigs (when will this ever end…? maybe I am getting old, but after 30 years of attending gigs I can’t believe we are not adult enough to just have 90 minutes of a great show, without having to go through the encore routine?). Anyhoo, after the clapping and more clapping, and sore hands, Hue and Cry come back on and we are given Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love”, which apparently they played on a TV program last year (I wouldn’t know as I stopped watching TV in 1992). A crowd pleaser by the look of things, but as I walk home I cannot feel disappointed that they did not play my all time favourite Hue and Cry song: “The Only Thing More Powerful than the Boss” from “Remote”.
I have to say that my expectations were mixed before the show, I had thought that it would be a case of old stuff great, new stuff bad, ‘play the hits only please’, kind of thing, and that Hue and Cry would have lost all of the drive that moved them to withdraw their labour of love so long ago. I even considered that they might only play jazz and no hits and turn their backs on pop altogether. But no, I have to say they struck a middle ground and I for one loved it. To hear that songs they wrote when they were in their early twenties, can still resonate with such force and be performed with such conviction, is testament to their gift as songwriters and performers.
They may be heavier and they may have less hair than in 1989, but so have much of the audience (in fact I watched Greg walk through the crowd prior to the gig and go unnoticed, so many of the audience looked just like him it was not surprising). They may enjoy less success than before, but if anything they seem more relaxed and this brought joy to my heart: the fact they are still around and still making great music, without the weight of a traditional recording contract gives hope to all of us that still aspire to be musicians. If you wish to experience more of this down to earth, honest craftsmanship, visit their website www.hueandcry.co.uk and get involved; this is real, maybe more ordinary than before but these brothers still fly head and shoulders above the competition.
Review – Alan Neilson
Photos – Ian Dunn