Sometimes, the synchronicity with which events occur really is quite uncanny.
Having recently returned from a visit to London (trust me, I try to restrict such things to a minimum these days, but once in a while it’s unavoidable) to see Ginger Baker, this particular gig couldn’t, for me anyway, be more pertinently timed: not only does at least fifty percent of tonight’s set (and the band’s recently released Heroes CD) consist of material composed by Jack Bruce, but it also provides much scope for reflection on how the inevitable passage of time affects us all in vastly differing ways. In short, Ginger, though only four years older than his fellow Sarf East Londoner Jon Hiseman, is these days a far more frail and subdued character: and while I still wouldn’t wish to get on the wrong side of him, his pace is undeniably far slower, his muse of a gentler, jazzier bent, and his average stage time gauged at no longer than 40 or 50 minutes at most.
By comparison, Hiseman- this year turning a youthful, svelte and trim 74- has hardly altered in either speed, execution or endurance over the last two and a half decades: not only does he remain to my mind the single best drummer in the UK, but since the retirement of the ‘Colosseum’ name (and indeed of his sax-playing wife Barbara Thompson) some four years back, he’s actually plunged into heavier waters than before, recruiting longtime collaborators Clem Clempson (guitar/vocals) and Mark Clarke (bass/vocals) for a crack at the scaled-down, hard-rocking power trio format. What’s more, it works brilliantly. That said, one still shouldn’t expect too much roughness or rawness from musicians of this calibre: this isn’t Blue Cheer or the Groundhogs, after all, and though opener The Kettle (a perennial dancefloor favourite of pysch clubs dahn Sahf, incidentally) is undeniably heavier than a sack of lead spanners, the individual players’ peerless jazz and R’n’B chops still reign supreme throughout.
For those unsure, the album’s title refers not just to the band’s deceased “heroes” per se, but to the numerous legends with which their members have played: as Hiseman wittily quips, “yes, you’ve essentially all paid twenty quid to see a tribute band, but it’s a tribute to the people we’ve been in other bands with, and a cover band covering our own songs” Hence, therefore, the prevalence of material by a certain Glaswegian bassist: however, in addition to a hefty chunk of the late Mr Bruce’s Songs For A Tailor and Harmony Row albums, including spine-tingling runs through Morning Story and Weird Of Hermiston, there’s an equally fine nod to Clem’s stint with Steve Marriott in the shape of Four Day Creep (a title the Cockney Mod God nicked from veteran blues shouter Ida Cox, despite eventually not using one single word of her original lyric) a brace of Allan Holdsworth compositions including the rarely-played Tempest track Strangeher, and at least two (the aforementioned Kettle among them) by Dick Heckstall Smith.
Naturally, when one lists such great names in succession, and is suddenly faced with the reality that none of them are around anymore, the effect can be quite chilling- but ultimately, all that does is provide you with yet another reason to love JCM for doing this. Elsewhere, the spirits of Larry Coryell, Graham Bond, Ollie Halsall (the punningly Beatlesque Yeah Yeah Yeah, featuring several cunningly quoted Fabs licks from Clempson) and Gary Moore also make welcome appearances: sadly, there’s no room for their homage to troubled jazz piano genius Mike Taylor, but I guess one must preserve an element of mystery for those about to buy the album, and from the rapturous applause received, it would seem that includes most of the near-capacity audience.
If there’s one slight letdown, it’s that the first 30 minutes of the second half- even a radical reworking of Colosseum standard Skellington– seem to lean more in a ploddingly bluesy direction than the first: however, there always was a strong element of that to the late 60s British music scene (check Clempson’s early work with Staffordshire blues heroes Bakerloo for proof) and viewed on its own merits, it’s just as musically valid as the freer, jazzier instrumentals or the more emotional hard rock pieces. And, while we’re on the subject of ’emotion’, it should also be pointed out that far from being just “a bassist who sings a bit”, Clarke is an amazing vocalist: granted, Clempson’s no slouch on that front either, but the bassist’s peerlessly high, spiralling, soulful delivery, especially considering how many of his peers struggle painfully these days with even the most basic of ranges, is an utter revelation.
Maybe one just didn’t notice it as much during the Farlowe-fronted band of yore: nonetheless, if there’s any chance he could pass his secret, whatever it may be, on to the likes of Ian Anderson (coincidentally playing tonight up the road in Brum, but I know which side my bread’s buttered, duckie) Les Holroyd, Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf and Paul Stanley before they embarrass themselves any further, it can only be for the best. Seriously, the geezer’s so good, he could give masterclasses. Similarly, the mark of a truly great drummer, or at least so I was always led to believe, is one whose solos don’t instantly make you rush to the bar or bog: by that yardstick, Hiseman succeeds perfectly, building from slow, bongo-like flourishes into the kind of thrashing crescendo Buddy Rich or even Max Roach used to specialise in back in days of yore (in days of my what?- Ed) yet never once losing sight of the essential ‘storytelling’ element.
Perhaps surprisingly, the night ends not with the expected traditional crash-bang of Lost Angeles, but with an almost tearjerking stroll through that most fabled of Bruce compositions, Theme For An Imaginary Western: again, Clarke nails his mentor’s original vocal, although as I cast round the room I can see I’m not the only one risking putting him off by loudly joining in. We may be indoors on a moderately cold evening in the West Midlands rather than outside in “a country town where the laughter sounds”, but truly, the sun is still very much in our eyes. Moreover, one hopes it will remain in Hiseman’s, Clempson’s and Clarke’s for a fair while yet, as on this first showing, JCM have an extremely promising future ahead of them.
Not only do they not sound remotely like, in the words of Hiseman’s own daughter, “three grumpy old men”, but they play with twice the fire of outfits half their age, and purvey their craft probably better than anyone else in the UK: of course, whether they can pull off the same masterstroke with new material (assuming they choose to even write any) is quite another matter altogether, but from where I sit, it’s going to be great fun finding out. Keep climbing that rope ladder to the moon, chaps: we’re not done with you yet.