Saturday, 5 May 2018

Gig Review: Hot Water Music at the Electric Ballroom, Camden 25/4/18 (by Richard Mair)

The punks are taking over London. Down the road at the Underworld The Cancer Bats are laying waste to the capital with four evenings celebrating the 10th anniversary of the incendiary Hail Destroyer, whilst the DIY Space For London plays host to underground darlings Worriers. This fact isn’t lost on The Flatliners frontman Chris Creswell; who regularly thanks the crowd for coming out early and checking them out. In all fairness he needn’t have worried, the Ballroom is nicely full for the Canadians when they take to the stage.

Despite the brevity of the set and the fact that Chris Creswell is pulling a double shift the band give their all, opening with Hang my Head off last year’s “Inviting Light” the band take little time getting the crowd going with Creswell’s guttural screams of the opening bars getting existing fans in the mood for numerous sing-a-longs. Despite the change in sound that the band have grown into from their early releases it’s pleasing to see the reception newer songs receive alongside older cuts such as second song of the night “Eulogy”. A genuine fan favourite and it’s easy to see why. The front rows explode with fists and fingers lofted as Creswell lashes his guitar with a smile that would melt even the coldest heart. The Flatliners continue to be one of the scene’s biggest potential breakout acts with their infectious punk ethos mixed with what is increasingly becoming a polished and nuanced sound that will have a broader appeal. They clearly love being on stage and entertaining and, through the remaining six songs, get everyone in the mood for the rest of the night. Playing a set heavy on newer songs, with five of the eight song set released off of either Dead Language or Inviting Light, they showcase more of their recent sound which on reflection is probably more palatable to most diehard fans of tonight’s post-hardcore headliners. With further stints to the UK in support of The Gaslight Anthem, it’s highly likely they get the wider exposure they richly deserve.

If tonight’s first support have more in common with the more straightforward punk rock sound of latter day Hot Water Music, the second support is a genuine throwback to the band’s early years. Former Avail frontman come seasoned folk punk troubadour Tim Barry has the unenviable task of following a brilliant but brief Flatliners set with an ever increasing and expectant crowd waiting to see their heroes for the first time in years. Thankfully his experience, ability to write a killer folk-punk tune and amazing stage presence means he quickly has the room stunned into silence and eating out of the palms of his shovel sized hands.

Opening track “Slow Down” is reminiscent of Chuck Ragan’s solo work, a true blue-collar anthem, slow, driven by a simple guitar lick and Tim’s vocal range. It’s a proper storyteller’s song that captivates the audience and is followed up by “Dog Bumped” one of his most well-known and best loved songs; it’s greeted with a fantastic reception and the more up-tempo style swiftly gets the attention of the most cynical.

In the respite between tunes Tim explains the background to his songs, at one point describing what “riding the freight trains” means to an audience not familiar with life on the poverty line in the US. Throughout his set, he makes many socio-political references but it’s the story behind “Prosser’s Gabriel” from his 2011 album “28th and Stonewall” that’s really hits home. “We need to stop building statues to white people” says Tim before embarking on a lyrical journey of an uprising in Richmond Virginia where slave freedom fighter Gabriel Prosser was captured and killed; the sting in the tail being that he was buried in what is now a car park. It’s this attention to detail and passion about people and society that really resonate with the audience and by the end of the set it’s safe to assume we are all in even more love with Tim Barry and his collection of stories from the breadline.

Finally the band everyone is desperate to see take the stage. For some lucky few their last experience of seeing Hot Water Music on these shores will be their show at the Old Blue Last in 2012; however given the size of the venue it’s probably easier to suggest that many will have to go back a couple more years to their 2010 appearance at the 02 Academy Islington for their last glimpse at who for many are their punk rock heroes. With a career built on many classic songs complete with rich bass lines, gravel throated vocals and brilliant melodic guitars, it’s inevitable that the night will be littered with iconic songs; even though the band are touring in support of 2017’s Light It Up. Proving that this will not only be a night celebrating this latest album but also their career highlights, Chuck Ragan immediately launches into the ferocious “Remedy”; one of the band’s most recognisable songs for casual fans taken from what is arguably their most accessible album (Caution). In fact throughout their set a total of 6 songs will be played from this one album, including a more unusual song and a personal favourite “Sweet Disasters” with its soaring final third getting everyone singing, to “Alright for Now”, a genuine surprise given its rarity in the set lists over the years, with its slower pace and driving bass line – it’s a highlight of the night.

Given the variety of fan favourites across their career, inevitable calls for songs such as the cover of Leatherface’s anthem “Springtime” or classics such “Moonpies for Misfits” raise smiles from those stood in our vicinity, although one lucky punter no doubt went away happy after their dreams of hearing “Alachua” heard live were realised. The band also played a key role in encouraging as much participation from the audience as possible; a deliberate quietening in the mid-section of anti-capitalist / anti George W. Bush anthem “Jack of All Trades” allows the audience to emphatically bellow the lines “... but fucker yeah you’ll get yours” back at the band with countless middle fingers raised in defiance.

Newer songs sit perfectly in the set list next to old faithfuls and, although just three from last year’s latest album appear, it’s “Vultures” that really stands out, propelled by Jason Black’s sexy bass line. Towards the end of the main set some of the big guns start to appear. “Turnstile” (one of my all-time favourite HWM songs) is epic, with its closing instrumental that feels somewhat dragged out for effect with Chris Creswell looking at home making it sound even more incredible live than it does on record, whilst last but one song “Hard to Know” gets everyone singing along with their mantra of “live your heart and never follow”. The main set concludes with another favourite from “Caution”; “Trusty Chords”, which the band blast through with gusto.

If the main set contained surprises the encore was truly special for this very reason. Coming back on stage a drenched Chuck again acknowledges the crowd for coming out and supporting the band over the years and makes a welcome gesture to their missing “brother” Chris Wollard who due to health reasons has missed the current touring cycle going back to their appearance at Fest last year. The point not lost on the fans who collectively no doubt hope for a speedy and successful recovery of one of the two leaders of the band.

Opening their return to the stage with “Wayfarer” is inspired, as the ballroom erupted with whoa-whoas, fists and crowd surfers. Single-handedly you could argue that this song generated a whole subculture of anthemic gruff punk bands such as Red City Radio or Iron Chic. Such is the devotion with which the crowd respond that the next song raises the bar even further, as Tim Barry comes on stage with the opening chords of Avails “Simple Song” ringing out. I’d often describe Chuck Ragan as a slab of solid granite; if that’s the case Tim Barry must be the mountain itself; dwarfing everyone on stage he endearingly smiles, laughs, hugs and inspires as he belts out lyrics to a song many thought they might never hear live. Avail were truly stunning in their day and the potency of this song in particular hasn’t diminished over time.

Inevitably it has to be something spectacular to close the night and the Bouncing Souls “True Believers” is the perfect way to go out. A night where everyone is there for one reason is truly defined by a song about unity, the scene and the people that make it special. Given his role with the Souls recently, it’s amusing to see George Rebelo give up his stool behind the drums to The Flatliners Paul Ramierez and amble round the stage playing guitar with Chris Creswell and saying “hi” to the front rows. Not content with just saying hi, Chuck is off with a microphone in hand to give the audience one final sing-a-long.

I’ve waited a long time to see Hot Water Music again, and their infrequent visits to these shores have always been worthwhile, but tonight feels truly special and one can only hope it’s not as long before we see them return again.

This review was written by Richard Mair.

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