Reasons to be Cheerful
It must be a strange experience for the legendary Blockheads– incredibly talented musicians in their own right, to perform without their close friend and iconic mouthpiece Ian Dury. After all, it’s his lyrics they’re delivering- his bitterness, his joy, and his working class experiences often spoken to the listener like words from a humorously tragic secret diary. He was the soul of their music. How do you replace that or replicate it? Well of course the answer is you can’t. What The Blockheads attempt to do however is make sure that he is celebrated through their music. Not once was he mentioned on stage but his cheeky chutzpah was infused and ingrained in all they did. And whilst current front man Derek Hussey didn’t deliver the lines with the same venomous velocity or satirical sadness there was enough observational drawl in his cool cockney twang to adequately support the music and engage the expectant audience.
Much of their music tonight is brilliant. There are a range of influences within their songs that veers across musical styles- from two tone ska, dancehall funk, jazz, rock and roll, balladry to punk. And yet despite this, the old songs feel seamlessly cohesive and exciting. Technically, The Blockheads deliver within the confines of the song and through extended instrumental sections- significant parts of their live performance that never felt laboured or contrived. The soloists surprised their fellow band members with improvised hints of Coltrane and Hendrix – challenging each other’s musicianship with ‘question and answer’ lines. Despite the band’s musical brilliance, however, it felt like the vocals were merely supporting the epic instrumental sections: lyrically they’re witty and engaging but I was acutely aware of Dury’s absence.
I also found it unusual that they decided to open with a new track called Look the Other Way from their most recent release Same Horse Different Jockey. It almost felt like an anti-climax- much of the audience anticipating something from the back catalogue to kick the evening off. I was also slightly disappointed that it took current drummer Dave Roberts so long to make eye contact with Watt Roy who was eagerly trying to incite some psychic musical connection amongst the rhythm section. There was a distinct hint of ‘session player’- technically gifted but delivered with no real passion until later in the set when suddenly he smiled and he looked like he was in the band again. It lifted the whole band.
Despite this, the audience, including myself, danced throughout and sang along to every hook-line and ‘Oi Oi’ that was thrown at us. Songs such as Wake up and Make Love to Me, Hit me with Your Rhythm Stick, What A Waste, Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3) and Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll are New Wave classics that lit up Hall Two of the Sage. The songs are great and the musicianship is excellent but it was the juxtaposition of Dury’s darkness with the dance grooves that made Ian Dury and The Blockheads so captivating and enthralling. The grooves are there but it is the lack of anger and bite in the vocal delivery that is lacking in tonight’s performance.
Most pleasing to me is that Norman Watt Roy, front and centre of the stage, drives the band with some of the best bass playing you will hear. As a fellow bass player, he is one of my heroes. Percussively and melodically he leads the band and many of their tracks sound like they’ve been written ‘bass up’; his grooves underpin Turnbull and Jankel’s disciplined rhythmic guitars, patiently waiting to serve up some beautiful solos when the song allowed. Watt Roy is a legend- he still performs as if every note is important. His line in Hit me With Your Rhythm Stick is technically and musically magnificent. He hasn’t lost the chops or the stamina and his passion for performing still exudes from the stage. If anyone embodies ‘funk-punk’ it’s him. I really enjoyed the gig; I smiled and wiggled throughout and I felt inspired after watching and listening to those bass lines.
It’s all about that bass…
Review by Paul Bentley
Photographs by Graeme J Baty