Gig review: THE CRUNCH & JOE STRUMMER TRIBUTE BAND – KOKO, London, 25 March 2015

This was part of Koko’s occasional Rock ‘n’ Roll Cinema series, tonight featuring the biopic of Joe Strummer’s Spanish sojourn in the mid-80’s: ‘I Need a Dodge – Joe Strummer on the Run’. And all the stops had been pulled out for this one.

First up, providing an incendiary curtain-raiser, were punk/power popsters The Crunch. Their appropriateness for this role was underlined by the presence of The Clash’s original drummer Terry Chimes behind the kit. The rest of the band have equally impressive cvs. Sulo fronts Diamond Dogs, guitarist Mick Geggus is a founder member of The Cockney Rejects and Dave Tregunna is Sham 69’s bassist.

‘Busy Making Noise’, the title track of the first album, kicked proceedings off in frenetic style. Filled with crunching riffs and catchy hooks, it provides the blueprint for the band’s approach: three-minute gems of edgy power pop that don’t outstay their welcome. ‘Down By The Border’ followed in similar vein.

There was an airing of new material from the forthcoming second album. ‘Lonely Beat of The Heart’ took things down a notch without losing the vibe and ‘Neon Madonna’s booming chorus caught the ear, even if the track’s some-time reggae groove struggled to make itself heard.

‘Gangster Radio’ was a nugget of anthemic joy and an homage to The Clash if ever there was one. It set the perfect tone for a quick-fire adrenalin-fuelled spin through a quartet of early Clash anthems.  ‘Janie Jones’ and ‘Career Opportunities’ spat with all the fire and energy of the originals. Sulo giving them the full wide-shouldered, wild-eyed delivery and Mick Geggus wheeling away at his Gibson like it was 1978. ‘Garageland’ followed and the set closed with a breathless, tight and sharp ‘White Riot’. The rapidly filling venue lapped it up.

This lot can play handsomely, they have catchy songs and bags of energy to burn. What’s not to like?

It’s a shame then that the main attraction of the night could not deliver on this livewire appetizer. Introduced by Clash biographer Chris Salewicz with an overlong reading from his book, the viewing took some of the fizz out of proceedings. I Need A Dodge – Joe Strummer On The Run seemed to be part art-house statement and part biopic.

The film sought to retrace Joe’s escape to Spain in 1984-85 not long after he had sacked Mick Jones and the new band was falling apart. Sometime in the ‘90’s, Strummer returned to Spain and in a radio interview asked if anyone knew the whereabouts of the Dodge Charger that he had left in a garage during his earlier sojourn and forgotten about.

This became the trigger for director Nick Hall to make the film. It was an overwrought diversion from a piece that could have been boiled down to about 45 minutes focusing on Joe’s production work with local bands Radio Fortuna and 091. With a better helping of decent footage this might have been an insightful piece.

But that story got lost in the shallow finale and we never properly learned the fate of the album. Instead there was a tame ending in a moody Madrid car park and in phone calls to the Spanish DVLA  chronicling a fruitless attempt to trace this car. Maybe the whole experience is a black comedy and I just missed the point.

I’ll stick to music. Because thankfully, as soon as the giant screen was hoisted in to the rafters, the all-star scratch Strummer tribute band hit the lights and picked up where The Crunch left off.

The core of the band was provided by Ruts DC with legendary drummer Dave Ruffy on drums and Leigh Heggerty on guitar supporting a host of guest vocalists and musicians who cranked out a set that underlined the sheer diversity of Strummer’s output.

The shifting cast of punk and new wave luminaries was kicked off by Paul Ronney Angel from Urban Voodoo Machine who fronted a gravelly-throated and colourfully-attired stomp through ‘London Calling’. He returned later with the band’s trombonist for a version of ‘Jimmy Jazz’ that more in common with stax than punk, complete with a brass/guitar jam that had to be seen to be believed.

Segs Jennings joined his band for a couple of cracking numbers: ‘Bankrobber’ was all spiky reggae groove and ‘Brand New Cadillac’ was a strutting, cock sure classic. Segs was great value and imparted a couple of anecdotes about working with Strummer on a film soundtrack.

This was the full career-spanning mash up. Tymon Dogg from The 101ers and The Mescaleros gave a true troubadour’s performance with vocals and violin on ‘Lose This Skin’ and ‘X Ray Style’, accompanied by Antonio Arias from 091 on guitar.

However, Chris Bailey from The Saints did not cover himself in glory. The only low point of the gig, he stumbled on stage looking like Benny from Crossroads and mumbled his way through ‘Spanish Bombs’ reading the lyrics from a scraggy piece of paper held out in front of him. He did the same a few minutes later for ‘This Is England’, admitting that he’d only heard the track a few weeks ago. Poor effort.

Accentuate the positive: one of the highlights was ‘Tommy Gun’ growled out by Charlie Harper, the UK Subs front man looking sprightly into his seventh decade.  Pretenders sticksman Martin Chambers joined him for a spirited twin-tub workout with Dave Ruffy.

Proceedings came to a thrilling climax when Wayne Kramer, MC5, took the gig by the scruff of its neck. Looking deceptively sharp in a shiny jacket and woolly scarf combo, he blasted through ‘Jail Guitar Doors’, laid down a scintillating, spiralling solo in ‘Looking At You’ and brought the house down with the stage packed like Live Aid for an extended ‘Kick Out The Jams’.

Remove the movie element from this Rock ‘n’ Roll Cinema night and you are left with a proper celebration of the true vitality of Strummer’s music.

Review by Dave Atkinson

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