Imagine Steeleye Span deciding to take a holiday in 1930s Berlin; then, after listening to a lot of Northern soul and Steely Dan, going to Cuba to do an album. No?
OK, try this. Imagine Fairport Convention – that’s better already – spending a week or so at West-End musicals and then taking a trip from Detroit to Nashville, the local radio stations going full blast, before going off to record some songs on a Greek island.
What I’m trying to do – perhaps not very well – is to describe the musical style, influences and sheer verve of the Steamchicken performance at the Arlington Arts last night. Normally with a band there are one or two obvious threads to hang onto. With them there are more than I count. Perhaps I’d better start again.
They’re a nine-piece – piano, bass, drums, harmonica, a four-piece horns/woodwind section and a singer. Every one of them was absolutely on the money (all the more impressive as they all live in different places near the M1 between Sheffield and London which must making organising rehearsals a job in itself). Some of the songs are imaginatively and rhythmically fascinating variations on folk songs, but without any of the sometimes cloying warbling that this genre sometimes has. Many of them are originals, the subjects ranging from courtship in Ancient Greece to the dangers of sailing a boat through an Atlantic storm and from gay soldiers to the hunt for adequate supplies of gin after a nuclear war, none of them subjects to which other songwriters have devoted nearly enough attention. The arrangements all jumped, skipped and throbbed along, now and again stopping and re-starting in a slightly different direction
I said all the players were on the money. Such remarks are sometimes followed by ‘but’. Not in this case, not for me. If I must pick out three, I’ll start with Tim Yates on bass. With no guitar on show and the tenor sax and piano contributing to the lower registers, being able to move up the fretboard now and then into guitarist country is a good thing; and this he did, without any loss of tone.
Above all, he did what all good bassists should do, anchor the rhythm with the drummer and the melody with the other instruments and provide a bubbling, pulsing well of energy for the arrangement.
On chatting to him at the interval I learned that he’s only recently joined Steamchicken and they’d previously not had a bassist at all. I couldn’t imagine how the songs could have worked as well without him.
As for Joe Crum the drummer, it took me two or three songs to work out what was different about his playing. Then I realised he only rarely used the cymbals (he only had two, both tiny) or the toms. Both of these tend to have long sustains and can muddy the sound, a particular risk in a band of this size. It was pretty much all bass drum, snare and rimshots and a closed hi-hat. As a result everything was clear and crisp.
If a drummer is fluffing fills and dropping beats you perhaps don’t always want to hear everything but neither of these applied here.
It’s sometimes said that if you have a good rhythm section and a good singer – and boy, Steamchicken vocalist Amy Kakoura is good – everything else can to a certain extent take care of itself. No such worries here. Of the rest, Becky Eden-Green on the alto sax was the stand out for me, on a couple of songs coaxing the sweetest tones I’ve heard for some time. As a section, these four really gelled as well: all five, in fact, as Ted Crum’s harmonica often added its own range of tones to the arrangements. If I had one criticism of the mix it’s that I sometimes couldn’t hear him as well I perhaps sometimes should.
Nothing over-stayed its welcome, either. However yearning the sax solo, intricate the high-register bass playing or compelling the drum pattern (to pick just three examples), just before you might have had too much the song would gracefully take a corner at high speed and veer off in a slightly different direction. When the final chord was played there was satisfying sense of arrival; also the memory of a journey full of unexpected and delightful detours. harmon
The sound was very good as well – really important with this kind of line up – so hats off to whoever was responsible for that.
As you can tell, I rather liked this gig. If this particular chicken is passing your way or you come across them on the web, grab the opportunity with both hands. Click here for Steamchicken tour dates or follow them on facebook or buy their music here
I will leave you here with one of the many flavours of the evening – this is Ted Crum on harmonica impersonating an American freight train…