Jack Bruce @ Birmingham Town Hall – 29th March 2012

Stan Lees plays lead acoustic Spanish guitar celebrating Django Reinhardt’s Gypsy Jazz legacy with deliriously dextrous virtuosity and captivating wit. With Paul Woolliscroft on slick rhythm accompaniment, they cantered through a brief set of cover instrumentals enigmatically wrapped within elaborate interpretations. Polka/Tango flavours of The ‘Harry Lime Theme’ perhaps? Spot-the-tune continued with a suspiciously coy reference to ‘Valery’ and a breathlessly extemporised ‘Tainted Love’. Consummate musicianship.

The reviewer needs to declare an interest here having had some ‘previous’ regarding Jack Bruce. Being mid-60s infused by elder brothers with the, ever-in-flux, John Mayall’s Bluesbreaker dynasty, I was sat down to watch TOTP with this new group, Cream, playing, err, miming, their debut single, ‘I Feel Free’. For certain I knew they were miming because even Ginger Baker couldn’t play wearing armour with swords for sticks. Pioneers of the ‘Supergroup’ concept before the word had been coined and drawing on Jazz structures of free-form extemporised jamming, together with the addition of stacks and stacks of ear-bleeding Marshall amplification, Cream’s relentless touring burned wheels of fire across the US and, inevitably, almost their will to live. ‘Disraeli Gears’ (1967) being recorded over a four day ‘break’ in New York being just one example.

So, some forty-five years later, at last I get to see Jack Bruce live on tour. Sources close to ‘brumlive’ suggested that there had been previous gig complaints that it was too loud! Hmm – Jack Bruce? The Big Blues Band? The clue’s in the names. It does what it says on the flight-case folks! That said, Town Hall, with all her gracious restoration and acoustic ceiling reflectors, felt her dignity perhaps a little compromised by the top-edge coming from the ballistic three piece horn section. JB’s bass amp-stack resembled the Krell laboratory In ‘The Forbidden Planet’ but chose to let it purr with retro red dial needles simmering on zero electing to open the set on electric grand piano with ‘Can You Follow’ (eponymous title of his box-set retrospective.) His resonate, signature voice is all there but eschewing the distinctive grimaced faced falsettos from days gone by – and indeed, those were the days, yes they were. Equally distinguished were his post-Cream solo projects that explored more complex, unorthodox time-signatures, alternative key shifts and counter-rhythms. And, it’s no small conjecture to suggest that JB’s unique style must have impacted on the evolving slap-bass funky groove embraced by Sly Stone et al.

The first part of the set was essentially post Cream material drawing on ‘Songs For A Tailor’ (1969) featuring ‘Tickets To Waterfalls’, ‘Weird Of Hermiston’ (a wry homage to fellow Scot, novelist Robert Louis Stevensons’s, Weir of Hermiston.) and the timeless beauty of ‘Themes For An Imaginary Western’.

There was time out for a nostalgic tribute to Graham Bond, whom, like fellow mentor, John Mayall, nurtured numerous tyro musos during their time in the GB ‘Organisation’. Valier/Meaux’s 60s Rhythm n’ Blues classic ‘Neighbour, Neighbour’ went down to a horn-stonking reception.

Needless to say, any grumbles about the volume were put firmly in to perspective as the set-list rumbled with re-workings of Cream classics, mostly penned by Bruce with long-time co-writer Pete Brown. The iconic ‘Spoonful’ bass-riff growled like a panther on heat punctuated by staccato blasts from the horns and at any moment Peggy Lee could’ve chipped-in with her own spoonful of ‘Fever’. Winston Rollins closed with a sleezy, brothel-stalking trombone solo. ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ was a swampy strange brew of curing bass-lines and slow Funk smoulder – the likes of which leather lizard, Jim Morrison, celebrated on ‘Crawling King Snake.’ There will have been some there tonight who will have recalled Tony Palmer’s ‘All My Loving’ (1968)* TV documentary featuring ‘We’re Going Wrong’ set against a visceral montage of 60s civil-rights movements, Vietnam horror and flower-power innocence. It’s lament for tolerance and humanity set in a context where the potential for a counter-culture to bring about change might now seem a distant, naive dream. Nevertheless, its contemporaneous relevance has lost none of its potency or rage. Tony Remy’s subdued reverb guitar work was apposite and sublimely timed. Then he let loose with a four minute solo of volcanic virtuosity that you don’t tend to get much off these days. And it was shrewd decision to avoid unnecessary Clapton comparisons by foregoing the use of wah-wah pedals through out the evening.

‘White Room’ & ‘Sunshine’ closed the set to much delight although perhaps too reliant on the horn section to fill spaces that could have sung for themselves. Of course, there had to be Frank Tontoh’s drum solo. Not quite a Ginger Baker 15 minute ‘Toad’ juggernaut but it began to spawn froggy legs after 5 minutes or so. The band encored with ‘Politician’ with the apposite, ( Yeh Dave, we’re all in this together!) line, ‘I’m a Politician/I practice what I preach.’ Now then Jack, who’d have though of it all those forty years ago? A long walk down memory lane Man, with wonderful turnings.

Setlist (with many scribbled changes); Can You Follow, Morning Story, You Burned The Table, Neighbour, Childsong, Weird of Hermiston, Theme Western, Tickets To Waterfalls, Spoonful, Bad Sign, We’re Going Wrong, Deseted Cities, White Room, Sunshine Of Your Love, Politician.

(Many thanks to Rick for this.)

Review – John Kennedy

Photos – Alex Dean

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