Monday, 13 April 2009

Later…with Jools Holland (Series 34, Show 1 - 7th and 10th April 2009)

Another year, another series of the seminal Music television show Later…with Jools Holland on the BBC. It remains the only decent ‘live’ music programme showcasing the best new music from current artists, exclusive performances and interviews with established stars and the occasional up-and-coming promising new talent. So that’s enough blatant PR, what about the line-up? For the first two shows of this series, Franz Ferdinand are plugging their new album, The Specials are back (for reasons best known to them) and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, also with new music to promote. Jools’ special guest is Carol King.

Tuesday (live)
  • Franz Ferdinand - No You Girls
  • The Specials - Gangsters
  • Carole King (chat with JH at the piano)
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Zero
  • Carole King - You’ve Got A Friend
  • The Mummers - March Of The Dawn
  • The Specials - A Message To You Rudy
  • Franz Ferdinand - Ulysses
Franz Ferdinand hardly provided the best opening to a new series with a faintly embarrassed lacklustre No You Girls, proving yet again that the band’s best songs are behind them. They open and close the live show, ending with first single Ulysses - again failing to engage or entertain.

The Specials. It’s hard to know what to say about such a great band, reformed and now sounding like their own tribute act. Terry Hall, one the world’s most influential and important musicians, looked and sounded like he really didn’t want to be there. Maybe that was part of the act…who knows. Opening with a very spirited Gangsters, the band still look like a bunch of individuals. If anything A Message To You Rudy was even more uncomfortable. Much of this has to be down to the conspicuous absence of Jerry Dammers who describes the band reunion as a ‘takeover’. For many he is (or was) the heart and soul of the band.

Expecting some much needed injection of pace and energy, Yeah Yeah Yeahs plodded through new single Zero, a mid-tempo drawl of a song with Karen O doing her best to sexy things up. She is a great performer but the new songs just do not capture the band’s wonderful presence. They have now gone all 80s (like every other band on the planet) with mixed results.

Speaking of performers, the brilliant Carole King added the class this week, struggling with her top-end vocals but providing a great rendition of You’ve Got A Friend at the piano - Jools resisted the temptation to stomp all over it and left her to it.

This week’s interesting band are The Mummers (which everyone knows is the name for a medieval group performing folk plays). The slightly disjointed orchestral pop of March Of The Dawn is complete with staccato trumpet and strings and ethereal vocals from Raissa Khan-Panni, a curious mix of Björk and Jerri Ryan. The song does its best to draw you in but you are never at ease.

  • Franz Ferdinand - Ulysses
  • The Specials - Gangsters
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Zero
  • Carole King (chat with JH at the piano)
  • The Mummers - Wonderland
  • The Specials - Man At C&A
  • Franz Ferdinand - No You Girls
  • The Specials (chat with JH)
  • Karima Francis - Francis
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Heads Will Roll
  • Alex from Franz Ferdinand (chat with JH)
  • Carole King - (You Make Me Feel Like ) A Natural Woman
  • The Mummers - March Of The Dawn
  • Franz Ferdinand - Turn It On
  • The Specials - Little Bitch
Starting where the band left off on Tuesday, Franz Ferdinand kick off with Ulysses - a better take to be fair with much more commitment but just as much end result. The Specials rattle through Gangsters once more, showing at least that the band are consistent. Starting as predicted, Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform Zero again. Karen O is in danger of becoming a parody of herself, her vocals descending into a series of squeaks and moans like the human embodiment of R2D2.

The intro out of the way, Jools chats some more with Carole King about her early musical career and the re-release of Tapestry. He shows some more archive footage of King in her irresistible prime, and then gets obsessed with the album cover (which shows King weaving).

There is more of The Mummers, with Khan-Panni switching from keyboard to keyboard then to vocals within the opening thirty seconds, only to return for a messy instrumental break. It is interesting stuff but could quickly become a bit one dimensional. Or maybe it is too much to execute live, suffering from over-ambition.

Back to Carole King, So Far Away is another emotional classic complete with exquisite piano playing and depth. Sometimes it takes a great performer to lift the quality of the show and this time it has worked.

The Specials seal their own fate with the terrible Man At C&A - even less relevant now than it was then and not the band’s finest hour, it sounds like a new song. Again Terry Hall shows no emotion or energy as he stands motionless. Then Franz Ferdinand launch into No You Girls again. What little interest I have at the half way point is slipping away…

And comes the bit I have been waiting for: Jools talking to The Specials. Frankly the interview is a mess and Hall is not part of it. What the hell? The band claim that they are kicking off their reunion at the BBC which was the last place they performed as a band (Ghost Town on TOTP back in the day…). Jools shows some archive footage, as he often does, of the band in their prime on the Whistle Test. Hall, who was never the most committed of performers, at least had an aggressive charm back then - a youthful exuberance. That is now replaced with nonchalance and bitterness. Jools at last asks the question: where is Dammers? The band asked him to join, he refused, let’s not talk about it. Then Jools revealed that JD phoned him and asked if the band would be on and asked if JH would not introduce the band as ’The Specials’. Love, apparently, is the answer to all these things. Then they joke about the recession. Sour tastes all round.

Moving on…Jools introduces a new talent: Karima Francis. WOW, what a voice. The song she performs jumps around all over the place, all pinned together with delicate classical guitar, but her voice remains a source of interest. This is quickly followed by Heads Will Roll by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, another new song that doesn’t quite get moving, doing nothing new or interesting musically. Maybe the band are not enjoying the forced live situation as much as one of their own shows. It all ends in embarrassment and even Karen doesn’t believe what she is doing.

Jools breaks things up with a quick chat with Alex from Franz Ferdinand about the band’s name - not very original but more interesting than the music. Then another treat from Carole King with (You Make Me Feel Like ) A Natural Woman. She does her best to get the audience, and other artists, involved… and it almost works. She has single-handedly transformed one of the worst Laters into a few moments of joy. Raissa Khan-Panni and The Mummers have helped and another outing of March Of The Dawn proves that it is a grower.

And then back to Franz Ferdinand with Turn It On. Much better than the two ‘singles’. Alex is possessed by the ghost of Elvis and it all has dark energy, like a forgotten Jesus And Mary Chain b-side. Another one to download for the iPod. With 5 minutes of the show remaining, the new series finally gets moving…

Then The Specials close things with the vile Little Bitch, a Dammers song. Not sure what the point of that choice was - but I hope for everyone’s sake that it was a cry for help and not to thrust the knife in some more.

So not a great show (or the start of the series). I failed to be engaged yet again by good bands with new songs. Carole King saves the day, The Mummers were interesting, as was Karima Francis. Shame that one of the best British bands of a generation The Specials decided to wash their dirty laundry in public and look so pissed off about. One lesson here: If you aren’t going to do something right, don’t do it at all. It will only end in tears.
-- CS

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