Life begins at 40 or so the saying goes.
Well for Rough Trade, the signs based on this evening is that they are acknowledging their childish ways and the odd midlife crisis may be around the corner but in the meantime, we’ll always have the music. Both the record label and the shop are in rude health. The network of shops has expanded north to Nottingham and west to New York. The label still carries some major names such as Antony and the Johnsons, the Strokes and Warpaint.
I’ve blogged regularly about their Album Of The Month series here, which has been a source of new pleasures for a good few years.
The theme of the first in a series of celebratory evenings was collaboration, the new playing with the old.
We missed (due to a combination of the Holloway Road and Moorgate being dug up) the evening’s openers, the Pop Group, veterans of the post punk wars playing with Detroit’s relatively youthful Protomartyr . I’d seen the Pop Group play an incendiary set at the Roundhouse last year (blog here) and I’m sure they stormed the Barbican this evening.
Next up were Scritti Politti. This is lunacy. Having been a fan for the best part of thirty years, I had never seen them play before due to Green Gartside reluctance to perform. Then 2016 comes along and I’ve seen them twice in a matter of months. If February’s performance at the Roundhouse was a triumph of will, the audience wanting Green to succeed, the Barbican performance was a sublime celebration of the central and somewhat unacknowledged place Green has in British music, having helped start the DIY ethic just up the road in St Pancras in the late seventies.
Green was accompanied by his musical director, Twitter legend and Independent newspaper technology correspondent Rhodri Marsden along with his usual drummer and bass player. He was also joined by the diminutive figure of Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip. I must confess to not being a huge fan of Hot Chip. I find their stuff a little “clever clever”. On reflection though, I may have misjudged them.
Alexis was a wonderful foil to Green, who was visibly more relaxed than at the Roundhouse and in more robust voice. The two of them harmonised beautifully, swapping verses and reaching into both of their catalogue. They opened with the gorgeous “Repair Man” from Taylor’s side project About Group.
Next up was a version of Augustus Pablo’s “Mr Bassie”. This acknowledged Scritti’s own debt to reggae but also provided a linkage to Rough Trade’s West store in Notting Hill and the local scene in the height of the punk period. The original version was Rough Trade’s second single RT002 and was a classic reggae 45. There was a wonderful moment when the band were winding the song down and Rhodri started playing the melody to “The “Sweetest Girl”” on a melodica, only to stop with audible groans from the audience. Seconds later, the drum machine kicked in and we were back with possibly Green’s greatest song. “The “Sweetest Girl”” was released on Rough Trade in 1981 and remains one of the most intelligent songs from that era.
The honeyed “The Boom Boom Bap” followed from Scritti’s last LP, also on Rough Trade. Time to mix it up again with Jonathan Richman’s “The Neighbours” given an acoustic flourish and a stately soulful take on another Alexis Taylor song, the About Group’s “Lay Me Down”. An electric ramshackle version of “Skank Bloc Bologna” (Catalogue number Scrit1 on St Pancras Records distributed by Rough Trade in 1978) took us back to Green’s days in the Camden squat. He was in a playful mood, confirming the catalogue numbers of the songs as he worked through the set.
Before finishing with “Wood Beez” and “The Word Girl”, there was a time for another gossamer and entirely appropriate cover.
“At Last I Am Free” fuels Nile Rogers’ and Bernard Edwards’ reputations, not just as a song and dance maestros but as a composer of real depth. Appearing on 1978’s “C’est Chic”, it was covered by Robert Wyatt, suiting his keening voice. His version on Rough Trade (RT52) sat wonderfully with his socially aware musical work in the 80s.
The circle was squared as Wyatt also played keyboard on “The “Sweetest Girl””. Ten perfect songs, just pure joy and the band left the stage to standing ovations.
James Endeacott, former member of Loop and Rough Trade alumni, returned to the stage introducing a brief film about the label and regaling the audience of drunken tales. Geoff Travers and Jeannette Lee were in the audience but didn’t take their bow. There was clearly a lot of love in the room though for what Rough Trade had contributed to the music scene.
It was a shame therefore that John Grant and Wrangler’s set fell somewhat flat. Wrangler are Stephen Malinger of Cabaret Voltaire’s latest project and have just released an excellent electronic album. Grant has been a favourite of both Rough Trade and myself for a number of years, who I’ve written about before. I saw him suffering with a heavy cold but pulling through at Glastonbury earlier in the year and hopes were high. It was immediately clear though that this was a different set up. Behind a bank of keyboards and in front of a large screen, the band performed material written specifically for the evening. It was techno heavy with distorted vocals. It was also clear from the number of walkouts that it wasn’t what much of the audience were expecting or looking for. Grant’s nuanced lyrics and deep resonant vocals were buried beneath an admittedly forceful beat.
It just showed two different approaches to the collaborative form for the evening. Green and Taylor swapped familiar and less well known songs and went down a storm. Wrangler and Grant came up with something unique and lost much of the audience. For me, it was a brave move but it didn’t work out. The audience were craving a little nostalgia for better or for worse. Wrangler and Grant’s set would have sounded fantastic in a warehouse, something like the one I saw New Order perform in last year. The seated stately Barbican wasn’t the venue for what they were looking to achieve.
Will Rough Trade celebrate half century? I’m pretty sure it will and I’ll do my best to help it along.