When a vocalist begins his set by launching into a cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”, you could be forgiven for slight trepidation, or even thinking you’ve wandered into the wrong gig altogether.
After all, covers gigs, such as they be, have never seemed (in my estimation at least) to represent the thriving heart of creative music, and indeed, I have previously been castigated by the populace (ouch) of the Facebook pages of at least two venues for daring to utter this belief openly and publicly with little remorse.
When the vocalist in question is Noel McCalla, however, one is presented with a whole different set of values.
Faced with a pedigree as impressive as his (founder of legendary pub-rock soulsters Moon, guest frontman with highly regarded jazz-rock outfits Morrissey-Mullen and Mezzoforte and on the pre-Mechanics albums of Genesis’ Mike Rutherford, backing singer with UK AOR gods Sniff & The Tears, a stint alongside John Coghlan and Ray Majors in studio supergroup Partners In Crime, and ultimately an 18-year tenure with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band) one can’t help but be pummelled into submission – it’s an overused adage, but this bloke really could sing the London phone directory and make it interesting.
Besides which, this show (also featuring two of his own numbers) is not a cheesy nostalgia fest of any kind, but an homage to the musicians that have inspired him in his forty-year-plus career. If Rod Stewart can do it, so can Noel: apart from anything else, he can still hit the notes…
And that’s just him. Lest we forget, this show is just as much about the band: on bass, Yolanda Charles, best known to serious music lovers as bassist with Paul Weller circa Wild Wood , provides a whole plethora of plangent, wooded tones that bestride that prefect platform between serious funk and mouth-watering musicianship, while on lead guitar, we have Jim Mullen. Yes, THE Jim Mullen.
So what if he’s predominantly known as a jazz guitarist? He’s just as recognised, to anyone who actually understands the rich tapestries of rock history, as a member of Kokomo and The Average White Band – as well as having some serious psych/prog credentials via Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express and Pete Brown’s Piblokto.
Sure, a lot of those names may lean a little in the soul/funk direction for some GRTR! readers, but since when did ‘rock’ have to mean ‘the hard stuff’? To those who were privileged enough to have been there in the free-ranging 70s, when a venue (ie THIS very venue) could host Wild Turkey one night, Pentangle the next and Gonzales the following week, with supports ranging from Slack Alice to Brian Protheroe via Clancy, it never did.
God, how jealous I am of those born 20 years before me. Still, at least tonight at least partially recaptures that atmosphere: close your eyes and you can see, smell and almost touch it.
How could you fail to with players like this? Again, I know it’s another cliche, but the essence of a great cover is re-interpretation to the point where it becomes your own, which McCalla, Mullen and Charles (aided by equally deft keyboardist Pete Adams and drummer Geoff Dunn) manage repeatedly throughout.
“Higher Ground”, a dozen times slower than Stevie Wonder’s original or the Chili Peppers’ metallised reworking, becomes less thrusting and more of a reflective, meditative piece: another Withers classic, “Use Me” (also once reinterpreted in suitably ominous fashion by Scott Walker) steals the show simply by its deviation from the original, retaining its classic, chunkily heavy bassline but as the basis for diversion and interpretation rather than rigid adherence.
Fast Show Jazz Club? Possibly, but what’s wrong with that? It is Sunday night after all. At the lower end, admittedly, I could have done without seeing Curtis Mayfield’s otherwise superlative “People Get Ready” medleyed, Bob Marley stylee, into the by now rather turgid “One Love”.
But let’s remind ourselves, McCalla and Mullen’s lineage dates back to a time when to hear these songs in a London pub was a thing of rare beauty as opposed to a predictable given, and they still enjoy them every bit as much now as they did then. So maybe we should cast aside our cynicism and do the same. I will if you will…
Of the original material aired, perennial Morrissey-Mullen favourite “All I Want To Do”, despite a smoothness redolent of a dozen 80s bars filled with loafer-clad jazzfunk casuals (who, ironically, I’ve forsaken my former Jaggersque attire and ended up dressing like with the encroachment of weight and age) is still as vital as it was some 30 years ago: in fact, if anything, it represents the end of a golden era for this stuff, before fusion stopped fusing altogether and the “plastic soul” that crossed over to a rock audience via Bowie and Ferry eventually became too plastic for its own good.
Sadly unlike Mullen, recognised rightly for his fluid flurries, improvisations and deconstructions as a giant of jazz-rock guitar, Noel McCalla may remain the perennial ‘nearly man’, the star that failed to ascend whilst repeatedly eclipsed by others of lesser talent, who came close time and again to turning that essential corner but never did, and bloody infuriating it can be too.
Having said that, he still seems as happy, ebullient and confident as ever, swayed neither by recent bereavement or illness, and for a man approaching 60, still only looks about 39, his dreads betraying not one inch of grey and his voice in no way diminished by the passing of time.
A national treasure, but very much a London-based one, he will, if you reside in the South East, doubtless be performing in a venue near you somewhere soon, either with this band, his trio or the equally fascinating City Funk Orchestra, and I can think of far worse ways of spending an evening of your time. To paraphrase an expression he himself used during one of his sporadic dips into patois: “Seen?” He bloody well should be.
Review by Darius Drewe
David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 30 August 2020.
UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 8 September 2020.
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