It was my privilege, along with an ecstatic crowd of over a thousand, to be at the Forum in Kentish Town last night for what was billed as the last ever live performance by Graham Parker and the Rumour. The veteran vocalist/writer/guitarist had got back together with his best known line-up in 2011 and their reunion has seen the release of two albums, namely Three chords good and this year’s Mystery glue.
The venue was an ideal choice for the gig, with its mix of standing and seated areas as, understandably, it was a pretty mature audience! I had seen Parker there in 1990, following the release of his excellent and underrated album, Human Soul, when he toured as part of Dave Edmunds Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue, along with Dion and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. A tremendous old-style package show, which also featured legendary guitarist Steve Cropper of Booker T and the MGs, bassist Phil Chen, drummer Terry Williams of Rockpile and Dire Straits plus the Miami Horns. (I had also seen Phil live in Rod Stewart’s band at Olympia in December 1978).
GP and the band took to the stage shortly after 9pm and hit the ground running with an ideal marker in the form of the title track from his 1976 debut album, Howling’ Wind. An album that was to prove a source of four other songs for the evening, all of which raised particularly encouraging cheers of recognition from the crowd: White honey, Back to schooldays, Soul shoes and Don’t ask me questions.
The classics were mixed in with a considerable number of songs from the ‘new’ albums, which for me was something of a missed opportunity to air so many landmark tracks from their collective superb back catalogue. I would have loved to have heard a few of my particular favourites such as Between you and me, Discovering Japan and Nobody hurts you, but clearly GP admirably seeks contemporary relevance and the chance to perform songs the band have worked on recently.
Parker’s touchstones when he started out – Dylan, Van Morrison, the Stones, Stax and US 1960’s soul in general – could be heard throughout the evening, not just in his still dynamic vocals but also in passages by the band. In their heyday, The Rumour were often compared to The Band, although clearly without some of the more down home instruments and stylings of Dylan’s back up. Lead guitarist Brinsley Schwarz added tasteful touches and effects, the classy rhythm section of drummer Steve Goulding and bassist Andrew Bodnar were unerringly steady yet quiet – perhaps too quiet as it was often difficult to hear Steve’s snare – and guitarist Martin Belmont was his usual charismatic foil to Parker, contributing shards of country and trad R&B to the mix. Keyboardist Bob Andrews, who neatly referenced his own vital piano part in Nick Lowe’s Breaking Glass in his solo during a relatively subdued encore performance of Hey Lord, don’t ask me questions, added presence to his side of the stage with bouts of impromptu dancing and general bonhomie.
The introduction of the Rumour Horns: Chris Gower (trombone), Dick Hanson (trumpet), and Ray Beavis (saxophone) noticeably lifted the latter half of the performance, with their collective sound along with solo blasts of sax adding significantly to the overall impact. Parker spoke movingly of missing saxophonist John ‘Irish’ Earle, who sadly passed away in 2008, and who notably contributed to the Heat treatment and Stick to me albums in the 1970s.
Highlights for me were faithful versions of Protection and You can’t be too strong, both from what is recognised as Parker’s best album, 1979’s Squeezing out sparks. The former, kicked off by Belmont’s striking chordal riff, was for me the one time the band truly rolled back the years and genuinely recaptured their winning combination of skill, grit, energy and adventure. Parker’s pointed lyrics reflecting the current political climate as much as the early Thatcher years: ‘So all of you be damned, we can’t have heaven crammed. So Winston Churchill said, I could have smacked his head’, delivered with GP hitting the side of his head for effect.
You can’t be too strong, the first encore, still chills to the bone and the stripped down trio of Parker, Bodnar and Andrews delivered perhaps the best version of the song I have heard. I had gone from the front of the hall to the back by this time, mainly to stand back a little from the crowd and to take in the moment. I am sure Dave Robinson walked past, looked at me and said hello at this point. I have met Dave before, the first time being at a screening of the Paul Carrack documentary at the Soho Screening Rooms in 2012, so it was a nice moment to see him. Especially as he played such an important role in Parker’s early career.
Parker is one of a select band whose songwriting output remains worth following through decades and not just months. The stage version of ‘Get Started. Start a fire’ from 1988’s Mona Lisa served as a pointer as to the strength of that period. Whilst the driving urgency that made the band a force of nature in 1977 has been replaced by, to my ears, a mellow fluency, the strength of Parker’s vocals and the tightness of the entire nine-piece reflected the warmth of the audience towards them and made for a highly satisfying experience.
It was a regular conversation amongst musicians I knew in my early twenties as to whether the Attractions or The Rumour were the ideal settings for Costello and Parker. Should our heroes have avoided all pub rock/bar band/cover influences and gathered younger tyros around them, or did the all-round skills of their chosen musicians offer more opportunity for the frontmen to dip a toe into country music and other Stateside genres? Either way, it was wonderful to see the original line-up again and for so many British fans to be reminded of special times from our youth, the 1980s and beyond. Welcome home boys, welcome home.