Advertised as ‘Ladies & Gentleman…Last Orders Please’ this may or may not be Family’s last hurrah, but on the off chance that it is, the band plays with discipline, craft, nuanced restraint, humour and plenty of conviction.
The 7 piece band stretch their material to previously unimagined instrumental heights, while vocalist Roger Chapman cuts a figure of studied concentration, restricting himself to a few quips – most memorably on the introduction to ‘Weaver’s Answer’: “Can’t talk too much ‘cos if I do I’ll start fucking swearing again!” – while making sure he brings due dilligence to a set list crammed full of nuggets.
This second of two nights at the landmark Shepherd’s Bush Empire has a noticeably different vibe from the band’s previous appearances at the venue. Apart from being a Sunday, you can almost feel the ambivalence of the occasion for both band and fans alike.
Either way, Family set about making the very best of some imaginative arrangements, which emphasize melody and Chapman’s more restrained, expressive vocals. The end result eschews a lot of trademark blood and thunder, but cleverly contemporises the material.
The change is immediately evident on the gentle vibraphone intro of ‘Top Of The Hill’, one of the band’s most enduring songs from the latter career ‘Bandstand’ album.
Tonight’s version brilliantly captures their subtle dynamics, as it moves from a beguiling fusion opening to full throttle bombast.
The rhythm section of bassist Garry Twigg and drummer Graham Walker percolate insistently, as the song explores unexpected musical flourishes, from the stuttering bass-led, stop-time opening and the velvet caress of Poli Palmer’s vibes, to Nicky Payn’s sonorous horns, leaving Roger’s vocal attack to take us to a sterling climax.
It’s almost a sister track to the angular ‘Part Of The Load’ which anchors the mid-section part of the set, and gives the band a further opportunity to blow.
There can be few bands left from the prog/underground era that continue to illuminate their own weighty material with such undimmed spirit and bluster, though in truth a rather subdued Sunday night crowd doesn’t quite return the energy the set deserves.
But Family don’t falter. They rise again on the Eastern feel of ‘Burning Bridges’, coloured by Poli’s vibes, and Jim Cregan’s nifty acoustic solo. There’s a lovely moment when the song drops down and the crowd seems to collectively take a deep breath, before Roger rises majestically to deliver both the defining line and a cathartic release.
It’s a telling moment that confirms that Family still have the chops to match their sense of musical adventure, as they reshape the past to the present.
‘In My Own Time’ features multi instrumentalist Nicky Payn on sax and guitarist Geoff Whitehorn respectively. Chapman momentarily stands still apparently perplexed, before Whitehorn reassuringly brings him back in on the chorus, leaving Roger to waves his arm and crack a broad smile.
Nick Payne’s sprightly flute provides a perfect foil for Chapman rough-edged growl and the band’s bv’s which bolster the refrain on the Tony Ashton inspired ‘Sweet Desiree’. It’s one of several songs that sounds much more essential in retrospect than at the time of its release.
‘Hey Mr. Policeman’ is shot full of the ghost of Jim King and is a tribute to the way Payne gets inside the song, while the rolling, rap style of ‘Sat`d`y Barfly’ reconfirms the Chapman /Whitney song writing partnership was way ahead of its time.
‘Hung Up Down’ substitute’s heavy languor for snap, but still works well, and ‘See Through Windows’ opens with a tension building, Beatles style cacophonous crescendo, in sharp contrast to the jaunty stop-start arrangement.
The audience seems slow to pick up on the opening of ‘The Weavers Answer’, but Roger ploughs on regardless, working his way round the opening couplet before Graham Walker applies the rhythmic drive.
The band leaves the stage just as they are hitting their stride, but generously return for a handful of classics of which the Cregan co-write ‘Check Out’ sparkles. Whitehorn and Cregan coalesce seamlessly on guitar, but it’s actually Payne who provides the climatic solo.
Roger confidently hits the top note of ‘Observations From A Hill’, and follows it with a celebratory whoop and the crowd responds in kind. Curious then, that they are again slow to react to the opening strains of ‘Burlesque’ – complete with its familiar drum pattern and unison guitar and horn parts – but by the time of Roger’s ‘all together” exhortation on the chorus, and a characteristic punch in the air and a primal growl for good measure, we are momentarily in a 70’s flashback.
The plaintive ‘Between Blue & Me’ rounds things off perfectly, with a song that stretches genres, moving from a folky intro and through proggy avenues, before resolving itself as Roger hits the final note.
All that’s left is for Chappo to mumble his assent and keeps things open-ended enough for perhaps one more show?
Special guest Edgar Broughton provides another reminder of the undiminished spirit of a bygone age, bringing his distinctive vibrato and droll sense of humour to bear on some interesting material.
The perceptive ‘Speak Down The Wires’ is positively prophetic, while both ‘Hotel Room’ and ‘Over The Rooftops’ sound like a personal incite into how the songs were originally configured.
Review by Pete Feenstra
Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 20:00
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