There’s a lot to be said for the art of performance. And tonight The Imperial Crowns front man Jimmie Wood works hard to preach the blues to a sun drenched crowd initially cowering on the edges of the festival square, as it’s 34 in the shade.
But cometh the hour, cometh the man, and a band that is surprisingly big on restraint while exploring plenty of variety.
The Imperial Crowns appear to have lost little during their 12 or so year absence, while gaining Jimmie’s daughter Rachel C. Wood on vocals. Wood senior meanwhile, deals in fire and brimstone and his sheer willpower sets about winning over a crowd with a performance that they will never forget.
From the moment he introduces the band individually through a deliberately distorted harp mic and encourages us all to commune with the band, there’s only one place to be in Bordeaux tonight and that is at the church of the Imperial Crowns.
And while Jimmie could be something out of a David Lynch movie – he teases out the eternal conflict between love and evil – he’s joined by Rachel C. Wood who harmonizes impressively on the opening aptly titled ‘I Gotta Right (To Wear These Those Rock & Roll Shoes)’.
The song’s sludgy, almost second line beat is topped by JJ’s slide and a stop-time woo-hoo refrain that cleverly draws the crowd in.
Father and daughter provide the focus, especially when alternating lead and harmony vocals, but they are still an integral part of a band that is the glorious sum of its parts.
For while Jimmie leaves his startled crowd in no doubt as to the fact they are listening to: “The Imperial Crowns from Los Angeles, California” – a mantra he repeats about a dozen times through a rock, blues, gospel, soul, funk and psyche fuelled set – it’s the depth of the band’s material and sonic detail that makes them special.
The heavy duty funk of ‘Lil Death’ for example, transforms his apocalyptic rants about the torments of hell and death into the French orgasmic meaning of ‘La petite mort’. He digs deep on the vocal and the band members play as if they’ve just escaped a jail sentence rather than a 12 year sabbatical.
The dapper guitarist JJ Holiday provides both a visual and musical counterpoint to Wood’s machinations. He’s a fluid player whose slide playing provides both soaring leads and fluidity, while the occasional use of wah-wah provides a dynamic lift.
The dancing bassist Jon Avila hits the stage like a featherweight. He locks into the grooves with the hard working drummer Billy ‘Champagne’ Sullivan, whose lightness of touch often belies his thundering stick work.
Rachel C. sings her first lead line of the night on the stuttering rhythm and Stonesy gospel feel of ‘Love Blues’, complete with another Jimmie preamble that exhorts us to: “Feel the love, but there’s a price to be paid.”
The tightly wrapped funk of ‘Alter of Love’ is another highlight, with great slide and a John Popper style virtuoso harp break, while ‘Liberate’ reaches for the truly anthemic, as the set builds up a gospel style tension that is belatedly resolved by the show stopping ‘Rambling Woman Blues’, which eclipses all that’s gone before in a big psychedelic finish.
The Pretty Things are up next and reach back on all their years of experience – well at least that of original members Phil May and Dick Taylor – to remind us just why they are such an enduring band.
Their place in history is cemented by their r&b hits and Stones connections, but tonight they also touch on their significant role in the psychedelic rock field.
Curiously, the r&b material such as ‘Honey I Need’ – complete with an exhilarating solo from Taylor and bv’s from Frank Holland – the bass heavy Bo Diddley cover ‘Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut’ and Jimmy Reed’s belligerent ‘Big Boss Man’ are greeted by the impossibly young elements of the crowd as the second coming.
Then just as confusingly, the die-hard fans at the front punch the air to ‘She Says Good Morning’ and the ‘S.F Sorrow is Born’, suggesting that after all these years the band are still regarded as one part a garage band and one part psychedelic.
A generous reception brings a smile to Phil May’s face, as he gazes from behind his shades into the distance and takes in the wonderful festival setting in front of a church that he mistakes for a cathedral.
The band almost further confuses everybody with ‘Alexander’, a minor psychedelic classic by The Electric Banana, a number Phil remembers well: “We had to change our name as we were being used”.
But they impressively glue everything together and skip decades while still sounding coherent. This is especially so on the newer ‘The Same Sun’, a dewy eyes reminiscence about their first appearance at the 10,000 strong Isle Of Wight Festival, which as Phil tells us grew the following year to quarter of a million.
Dick Taylor psychedelic flavoured guitar figure leads the band into a booming chanted hook. He is magnificent throughout. His solos are incisive and cutting edge, while still being melodic enough to nuance tonal depth. His crouched, studious approach belies an ability to lift a song with an effortless phrase that captures the moment.
A few quickly solved feedback gremlins aside, Phil also appears in his element. He radiates understated charm as he alternates between maracas and tambourine, while probably quietly marveling at a sizeable festival crowd grooving along to a 55 year old band, though he does mention that ‘S.F Sorrow’ will be 50 years old next year too!
On the hottest night of 2017 in Bordeaux so far, The Pretty Things roll back the years, and as young fans at the front shout out for ‘Midnight To Six’, you realize music really does have a magical ability to transcend space and time.
Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Anne Pioton
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
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 20 September 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 22 September 2020.
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