Willard Grant Conspiracy, The Duke & The King: Club Uncut, The Relentless Garage, September 18 2009
When The Duke & The King made their UK debut at London’s Bush Hall in May, I seem to remember there being at certain points up to about nine people on stage, including on at least one number four people playing guitars, someone on keyboards, a couple of backing singers and, of course, Simone Felice, late of The Felice Brothers, and his new musical partner Robert “Chicken” Burke on vocals. The evening also included a lot of instrument-swapping, principally between Simone and Burke, who took turns at the drum stool.
This was only The Duke & The King’s second show, and good as it often was, there were a lot of early nerves, although by the end the house was duly rocking. You still had the feeling, however, that this was still very early days for the band. After a decent spell on the road, you could only imagine they would be even more fearsomely good.
And this was pretty much the message I got from several Uncut readers who’d caught their recent dates, all of them pretty mind-blowing from all accounts, especially their turn at the End Of The Road festival. What I hadn’t realised from this reader correspondence was that the line-up I saw in May had been so dramatically revised.
They appear at the Garage for Club Uncut, whittled down to a four piece. The guitarists, keyboard player and bassist who’d appeared at Bush Hall have all gone. Burke is on bass and vocals. Nowell “The Deacon” Haskins continues to supply extraordinary gospel vocal counterpoints and now also drums. Simone is still stage centre, on guitar and vocals, and to his left is newcomer, the sensational Simi Stone, on fiddle and additional vocals. Her striking voice adds an even more testifying flavour to the group’s sound, which in its new incarnation is both simpler and more dynamic, their four-part harmonies a sheer wonder.
The set is drawn principally from debut album, Nothing Gold Remains, with notably luminous versions of “If You Ever Get Famous”, “The Morning I Get To Hell”, “Union Street” and “Suzanne”, with Burke taking the lead vocal. They raid the Felice Brothers songbook for two songs – “Don’t Wake The Scarecrow” and a rowdy “Radio Song”, which ends in some mayhem, with Stone’s flamboyant fiddle swirling through the mix as deliriously as anything Scarlett Rivera played on the Rolling Thunder Tour.
At the Bush Hall, they’d done a great cover of The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” that’s no longer part of their set. Instead, it’s been replaced by something even more spectacular – a truly stunning version of Neil Young’s “Helpless”, Stone’s fiddle here a thing of mournful beauty, Felice and Burke’s twin harmonies framed by the soulful exclamations of Stone and Haskins, the whole thing quite breathtaking. As is the closing “One More American Song”, four voices, one acoustic guitar and five or six minutes of sombre perfection.
Willard Grant Conspiracy, whose line-up can sometimes be counted in double figures, are also stripped down to a four piece tonight, with WGC mainstay Robert Fisher joined by a trio that includes guitarist Paul Tasker and vocalist Iona MacDonald from Doghouse Roses. The conversational intimacy of what they play is in many respects as the evening unfolds increasingly ill-served by the Garage’s reputation for rowdiness, the din from the large bar area clearly vexing the many reverent fans gathered at the front of the stage. Their exasperation turns to angry impatience as the noise behind them increases, people around me now getting quite agitated and yelling at the people at the back to shut up, which of course only adds to the general din, which seems somewhat counter-productive.
The Friday night coke-heads in the bar are clearly not as interested in listening to the band as they are to each other and are loudly indifferent to the prim demands to button up and pipe down. As if Uncut is somehow to blame for this general insensibility, I am now asked repeatedly by indignant fans to write an editorial at the earliest opportunity about people talking at gigs. Blimey. With the world in global recession, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, woe everywhere you look and the price of decent weed, you’d think there’d be other things to get so het-up about.
Not that I’m unsympathetic, the racket is as irritating as fuck. And I’m not sure why anyone would want to shell out up to 20 quid for a ticket for a band they don’t especially want to see and pay nearly four quid for a pint of lager when they could as easily have met in a local pub where the drinks are cheaper and you don’t have to pay to get in.
But if these people are indeed prepared to pay that kind of money, what can you do? Make everyone take a vow of silence, impose a gagging order of some kind, or make talking, texting and chatting on mobiles punishable in some way? Whatever, I’d say there are quite a few folk here who won’t be going back to the Garage again, whoever’s playing.
Anyway, amid all this commotion, tonight’s incarnation of WGC, when they can be heard, play many noble things, sublime versions among them of “Ghost Of The Girl In A Well”, “Soft Hand” and a dolorously gloomy “Fare Thee Well”.