You really should have been there!
Shepherds Bush Empire London October 2013
Thirty years since their last gig in London!
‘…Mr Lawrence! Mr Lawrence! A man come through!’. (Van Morrison)
‘ Love is lovelier the second time around’. (Cahn/Van Heuson)
Passion is no ordinary word. Graham Parker, even in the doldrums of a thirty year plus career in music, has always written and performed his songs with shattering commitment. And, especially when partnered (not supported) by the astonishingly resourceful and committed group of musicians known as The Rumour, he made records and played concerts between 1975 and 1981 that will stand as peaks of rock excellence in the passionate tradition of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.
Parker, a scrawny Englishman with electric energy, has generally punched above his weight as a singer and performer – always reaching out for the perfect dramatic expression of the emotions and narratives contained within his extensive songbook. His ace to play is a thrillingly soulful voice which can plead for, pledge, and command love. Parker ‘s vocals lend colour, weight and dynamism to his songs whether in his tender yearning ballads (‘Fool’s Gold’) his wide screen technicolour story epics (‘Watch The moon Come Down’) or in his helter- skelter, jump-on or be run over rockers (‘Soul Shoes’). A Graham Parker vocal at his best has instantly recognisable authority (you know he really means it!) without sacrificing his vulnerability or sense of wonder.
The Rumour: Brinsley Schwarz (guitar), Martin Belmont (guitar), Bob Andrews (keyboards), Andrew Bodnar (bass) and Steve Goulding (drums) combine impressive musical chops with the rare ability to really listen to each other and their lead singer so that the songs they play have an organic texture that allows them to breathe, build and bloom into flesh and blood life. This is a band committed to each other and their craft. It’s no accident that they took their name from a song by The Band – the ultimate exemplars of co-operative built to last music making in the rock era.
In their heyday Parker and the Rumour were a match for any live band in the world and their classic albums – Howling Wind and Squeezing Out Sparks – were astounding examples of rock songcraft. In reaction the hip critics raved, the cogniscenti queued and fellow artists like Bruce Springsteen listened hard. However, lacking irresistible hits, a clearly defined commercial image and extensive radio play the great British and American publics and the music moguls were never convinced. Eventually the grind of endless touring without commensurate reward took its inevitable toll.
Graham Parker relocated to the Woodstock area and settled down in every sense proceeded to record a series of intelligent and well wrought albums that satisfied his audience without troubling the mass market. Almost every one contained a song or two most songwriters would have killed for and all featured singing that could lift or break your heart. The Rumour went their separate ways and found niches that satisfied their varied needs for full time involvement in music.
And that’s where the story might have ended. Another band, much loved and fervently recalled, that as time went by became more of a myth and less of a reality. Until, out of the blue, a crowd funded documentary led to a one off reunion for Parker and some of the band and a decision that a reunited GP and The Rumour would record another album – now known as, ‘Three Chords Good’.
To add to the twilight zone like sense that, ‘something weird is happening here’ it turned out that the actor/director Judd Apatow, a longtime fan, thought he might usefully cast Graham Parker as a once revered rocker beloved by the mid-life crisis hero in his movie ‘This is 40’. In the movie the hero gets his favourite band together. So, through the magical power of Hollywood Graham Parker and the Rumour after a thirty year lay off trod the boards together again and found that they still had the elusive chemistry that makes a band really special. They might have gained a few pounds and gone grey but musically they still snarled and burned and perhaps now had more control and swing – better able to know when to push and when to throttle back. New songs were written and recorded for ‘Three Chords Good’ which emerged as a set of beautifully conceived and played songs worthy of the band’s history.
Given all the above – why not tour again and see if the old soul shoes could still tear up the dance floor? So, conscious of my own grey hair and how desperately I wanted GP and the Rumour to be once again the great band who had often made an in concert reality of the challenge presented in taking on Sam Cooke’s ‘Let’s Have A Party’ I took my seat in the Shepherd’s Bush Empire with no small amount of nervousness.
From the first, everything’s in place, burnished opening chords of the endlessly yearning ‘Fool’s Gold’ it was obvious that this was a band and a singer that were not simply leaning on memories of former glories. Rather, here was a band of brothers who were, almost anazedly, finding that they could still make their songs come freshly alive as new creations. You could see old friends in the audience turning to each other with face-splitting grins mouthing ‘My god they really still have got it!’
Their mojo was definitely still working and song by song they burned up the stage and lit up our night. Particular highlights included a scorching take on Howling Wind featuring Brinsley Schwarz’s barbed wire guitar and Bob Andrews just this side of crazed keyboards alongside GP’s anguished vocal. A new song ‘Snake Oil Capital of the World’ showed Parker’s vocals could still have sarcastic bite and that the Rumour could keep him on his toes through the controlled intensity of their playing. During ‘Discovering Japan’ Steve Goulding and Andrew Bodnar showed what a potent rhythm section they were with the former’s powerhouse drumming especially impressive.
The expressionist drama of ‘Watch the Moon come down’ captured the whole outfit in magesterial form switching from relaxed vamping to all out attack with fluent ease – the theatre seemed bathed in spectral moonlight. Martin Belmont, a giant figure who always looks as if he is just about to start a fight, played throughout with lyrical beligerance and on a swooningly intense ‘Local Girls’ his guitar rang out to the rafters. The showstopping ‘Dont Ask Me Questions’ proved, if proof were needed, that Graham Parker does have a heart full of soul and the vocal graces to arouse shivers in his audience. His songs can also summon whole audience to passionately sing as his ragged but righteous chorus. No-one left the gig without having been moved and delighted at witnessing a true renaissance.
Looking back, the concert acted as a series of triumphant demonstrations of Graham Parker and The Rumour’s passion, skill and sheer determination to do honour to themselves, their heritage, their new songs and their audience. Not that this audience needed much winning over. I have never felt such waves of such pure affection travelling between an audience and the stage. Indeed at times the band seemed taken aback by the overwhelming reaction their heroic playing produced. There was a real sense that the Empire was filled with people on and off stage celebrating the good times of old and deliriously happy to be creating, not recreating, new peaks of experience. Graham Parker and The Rumour have weathered their storms, come to terms with the rollercoaster of good and bad fortune and come through into a new world.
Sometimes, although you properly never believe this in youth, love can be lovelier the second time around!
Footnote : Since this post was written its been given the thumbs up by Graham Parker himself and Martin Belmont!