Monday 9 December 2013

Roddy Frame: Aztec Camera's "High Land, Hard Rain" at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane Sunday December 01st

Roddy Frame at Theatre Royal Drury Lane - Photo by Steve Worrall
I never really liked Aztec Camera, I remember seeing them on Top Of The Pops once, and Roddy Frame was all fringe, floppy hair and tasselled jacket. It was too sugary sweet and pop for me, too much of that awful 80’s production and drum sound and far, far too cheerful and upbeat for an angst ridden Punk Rocker. A quick look at my gig diary at the time of the release of their debut album “High Land, Hard Rain” in 1983 tells me that if I wasn’t getting knocked unconscious (unintentionally) at a Discharge gig in a dangerously hot and sweaty 100 Club or seeing a man hit himself over the head with a metal tray in a band called Pogue Mahone I was either getting elbowed in the head by chicken dancing Psychobillies at King Kurt shows (unintentionally) or being chased from my own band’s gigs by chair-leg wielding skinheads (very much intentionally!). It wasn’t until hearing Roddy Frame’s duet with Mick Jones on the Big Audio Dynamite sound-alike “Good Morning Britain” in 1990 that I took a bit of interest and was a bit surprised to find out that Frame was a big Clash fan. Later on I was more impressed with his debut solo album “The North Star” in 1998 than I was by any of the Aztec Camera albums; it was a great record with some cracking songs such as “Reason For Living”. Then seeing Roddy Frame play a great gig at the LA2 and later a low-key acoustic show at the intimate Borderline around the time of his “Surf” album, hearing those Aztec Camera songs stripped of the distracting 80’s production, it dawned on me just how great they were. It wasn’t just the songs though but also his virtuoso guitar playing, humorous storytelling and easy going banter with the crowd that made me a convert to the cause. 

So tonight is the first date in a small tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of Aztec Camera’s debut album "High Land, Hard Rain", and it’s a far cry from the Borderline, it’s the Theatre Royal Drury Lane no less. We are way up in the Grand Circle and considering the majority of men in the crowd are somewhat folically challenged I have to sit behind a giant with the most frizzed up frightening hair I have seen for some time. For a theatre it’s a poor view and I spend most of the gig ducking around, craning my neck trying to get a good vantage point and it meant that photo opportunities were quite limited. The show starts promptly at 8pm, the house lights dim and Roddy appears alone with his acoustic guitar and launches straight into a beautiful run through of “The Birth of The True” from the “Knife” album. “So what have you been doing for the last thirty years?” Roddy asks and plays “How Men Are”. This is followed by a sublime “Spanish Horses”, dedicated to the city of Barcelona; it highlights Roddy’s quite stunning guitar work, the flamenco rhythm driving the song along. “Small World” is beautiful tonight and Roddy explains that it was picked by Craig Cash to be used for the sit-com “Early Doors”. Then he introduces a drummer and bassist and tells us he is going to play some songs from his early East Kilbride period that didn’t quite make the cut for “High Land”. There is a bit of banter about the fact that there was probably a good reason why they didn’t make the album, but in reality the songs are excellent, “Green Jacket Grey” and “Orchid Girl” are both excellent. In between the songs the bass player whispers something to Roddy, who in turn confesses to us. “Our bassist is such a polite Austrian gentleman, he’s just told me his monitors are missing, and I mean actually missing”. Sure enough they were not even set up on stage so we have to endure the sight of a roadie bending over to set them up during “Orchid Girl” but luckily it doesn’t detract too much from the song itself. “Well we never had monitors at our early gigs back in the day, so that’s one for the purists”. Then suddenly, that’s it, it is interval time and I feel a bit short changed, people were just getting into it and it feels as though the rug has been pulled from under my feet. Then it turns out the interval drags on for way over twenty minutes, it’s a bit disappointing. But never mind, people can buy luxury ice cream from authentic usherette trays…“Rock ‘n’ Roll!”

Photo by Steve Worrall
Luckily the second half of the set makes up for it as Roddy returns with the band augmented by a keyboard player and another guitarist, and then it’s into the album itself. They finish a wonderfully upbeat “Oblivious” and as the rapturous applause dies down Roddy exclaims “Oh, I quite like this classic album thing, I’ll have to write another one!” He could make it as a stand-up comedian I’m sure as the self-deprecating comments and witty one-liners flow as fast and furious as his nimble fingers along the fret-board.  “I need a different plectrum for this one, for your information it’s 1 mm, I know these things can be important” and “Apparently the venue said there are no photos tonight, usually I don’t like people taking photos either but tonight I’ll make an exception. I don’t mind, do what you want, this gig is for you. You can even sit and paint a watercolour of the show and put it up on your Blog if you want”. He taps into the demographic of the crowd perfectly, despite still looking quite annoyingly young, fresh-faced and healthy. “I am not sure about this classic album thing, but you look like you’ve been to a few, sitting there with your £7 glass of Rioja, some of you look like you’ve even been to one of those fake Pink Floyd tribute classic album shows. I bet you don’t know what’s coming next, don’t worry, I do!” 

Photo by Steve Worrall
There’s one bit where a member of the crowd hisses a loud “shhhh!” as some idiots are chattering away while Roddy is talking, in fact even during some of the quieter acoustic intros some people seem to be more intent on catching up with the latest gossip rather than concentrating on the show. I don’t get this modern phenomenon of people paying money to go to gigs just to talk through them. It would appear neither does Roddy, the irate punter’s plea for some respect seemed to have worked. “Listen, can you hear that? No neither can I, I love the sound of silence”. There are, however some nice bits of crowd banter, “is that the same old guitar?” someone shouts as Roddy straps on a beautiful gold Gibson ES295 semi-acoustic. Roddy laughs, “What? Is this like an impromptu Q & A session now? Do you really want to hear a bit of background to the songs?” “YES!” the crowd cries. He explains the guitar is a replica of the model that Scotty Moore used during the Sun Studio sessions with Elvis, gives us a quick blast of Scotty style guitar and finishes off with an Elvis swing of the hips. He talks about moving down to Acton in London and even gives us the address and directions “you can all go on one of those music heritage location tours, you come out at the tube, right by the police station then run past the estate.” There’s more banter about his guitar technician/roadie, who I am quite surprised to notice is the bassist in the excellent Power Pop Punk band Cyanide Pills, “I need a different guitar for each song so my guitar roadie is going to be the busiest man in London tonight”. Then there is this chestnut, “There’s only one thing worse than tuning guitars, it’s listening to other people tuning them”. So, of course no surprises, we get the whole album faithfully reproduced, unfortunately it’s so faithful that we also get a thumpingly intrusive and unsubtle snare drum sound that irritates in places. However, it all falls into place on a quite stunning “We Could Send Letters” which sends shivers down the spine, a truly memorable moment. Another highlight is “Lost Outside The Tunnel" which Roddy goes on to explain was influenced by the Liverpool Post-Punk Psychedelic scene of Teardrop Explodes and Echo & The Bunnymen. He also tells us how Aztec Camera supported The Teardrops on the day Ian Curtis died. The gig draws to a close and again he homes in on “the middle-aged Rock Fan dilemma” (sounds like a song by The Fall…) “I put out on Twitter that the gig will end at 10pm, we’re running a bit late and now I feel guilty as I know most of you will have to get back to your baby-sitters.” He ends off with a lovely version of “Killermont Street”, an uplifting “Bigger, Better, Brighter” and of course “Somewhere In My Heart”, and the crowd respond with a rousing standing ovation. The encore is short but he leaves us with the good news that there will be a brand new solo album to be released sometime in 2014.

Photo by Steve Worrall

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