The Animals and Friends with Steve Cropper
The Tivoli Theatre
1st September 2011
Pete Barton – vocals, bass
Mick Gallagher- keyboards
John Steel – drums
John Williamson – guitar
The Animals? Steve Cropper called them “The Original Animals” at least three times. They’re not. It would be a homeopathic dilution of the originals. Only John Steel remains. No Eric Burdon, Alan Price, Chas Chandler or Hilton Valentine. Mick Gallagher is listed as an original, and he did replace Alan Price in 1965, and is a fine organist in his own right (Ian Dury, Paul McCartney, The Clash and Robbie Williams thought so). John Steele tells a long anecdote about how Gallagher was rushed from Newcastle To Stockholm after Alan Price deserted them without telling anyone. Gallagher had to play with them with 20 minutes reheasal. But Dave Rowberry was the permanent replacement, who recorded with them. Burdon has told the story of Alan Price’s departure. When the rest of The Animals discovered that “Trad. Arr.Price” on the credits of House of The Rising Sun meant that Alan Price got the composer’s share and the mechanical royalties, a degree of tension developed. Burdon claims that Price told them his name was on it because music publishers used alphabetical order and his came first. If so, Burdon’s thicker than I thought, because while Alan precedes Eric, alphabetical order is based on surnames (placing Burdon first in fact!) I’ve never rated Burdon’s veracity. He now claims that they discovered both Baby Let Me Take You Home (aka Baby Let Me Follow You Down) and House of The Rising Sun from obscure blues artists. In 1964, he told the press truthfully that they found both on the first Bob Dylan LP. I remember. I read the interview and bought the LP the same day.
I’d accept Eric Burdon and pick up guys as The Animals definitely. I’d accept Alan Price just about. But John Steel? Anyway, it’s actually called The Animals and Friends, and they’ve been touring hard for years.
This year’s addition, and my reason for going, is Steve Cropper, one of the four or five most influential and important guitar players, producers and writers of the rock era. This is the guy who co-wrote Knock on Wood, In The Midnight Hour, Dock of The Bay. He played on most Stax releases of the classic era. He’s namechecked on the original Soul Man by Sam & Dave (Play it, Steve) let alone The Blues Brothers version. He was named as ‘greatest living guitar player’ by Mojo magazine.
The first set, dead on time, was The Animals and Friends. They don’t use lighting changes, and have none of the dynamic presentation of The Searchers a week earlier. Pete Barton is the front man, playing bass and doing lead vocals. As John Steel said in his intro, he’s two for the price of one. He sounds like Eric Burdon, and plays like Chas Chandler. Or maybe it was ‘looks like’ Chas Chandler. He’s a big guy, with a big voice and big personality, and plays bass loud and solid. He’s played in a lot of 60s revival bands but looks like he’s just come from Motorhead. Definitely a 70s heavy metal image. He has a huge voice and can shout it out like Burdon. John Williamson is a contrast: tiny and very neat. He was in 70s band Titanic (who had a hit with Sultana). Micky Gallagher leaps out as the best musician on stage. He reminded me of Richard Bell (Janis Joplin, The Band) who is immortalised on Chip Taylor and John Platania’s recent album, “Rock & Roll Joe”, which is a concept album dedicated to the great rock and roll sidemen. Gallagher is one of the great rock and roll sidemen. John Steel at seventy drums like a much younger man (though I noticed he was doing breathing exercises while drumming by the second half).
The set is pretty much what it says on the poster. Animals hits, mixed in with R&B covers that were either Animals hits or on Animals albums. We start out with Baby Let Me Take You Home, It’s My Life, then Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights, Big City. Spencer Davis was playing with the Animals & Friends recently, which led into Every Little Bit Hurts followed by Somebody Help Me. That was interesting. It was becoming apparent that they were stronger on the R&B covers (Bright Lights, Every Little Bit Hurts) than on the hit tunes. Somebody Help Me wasn’t very good. They just couldn’t get the spring and bounce of the song. They weren’t supple enough. Playing the original guitar part would have helped. John Williamson sang an excellent Dimples, followed by Barton with a powerful Bring It On Home To Me and Don’t Bring Me Down. Barton has an annoying tendency to shout out 1963! or 1965! or 1964! in the middle of songs. He also told us, when John Steel mentioned 1965 that ‘I was three then.’
The interval separated us from Steve Cropper. The history was running through my head. The Animals were one of the definitive British R&B bands. A quote from The Last Waltz movie came to mind. The Hawks (later The Band) were jamming with Sonny Boy Williamson back in 1965, and he’d just returned from England. He told the Hawks Those British bands want to play the blues SO bad … and they do. Sonny Boy had made albums with The Animals and with The Yardbirds in England. They were the major suspects for years, until Paul Jones said on his Radio Two show that it might have been Manfred Mann. They’d been booked to back him on TV, and there was a major row (on how many bars there are in a 12-bar and tuning and keys) and both sides refused.
The Animals sum up the British R&B boom. That was replaced by soul, and bands converted to soul before migrating to kaftans and beads. Steve Cropper personifies Stax soul. A lot of people could fumble their way through twelve bars, only to founder on the greater playing demands of soul. Cropper was part of the Stax house band. Booker T. Jones on organ, Duck Dunn on bass, Al Jackson on drums, Cropper on guitar. The band was one of the very best in the business. Ever. More recently, Cropper has been recording with Felix Cavaliere, another great organist (and soulful voice) whose pedigree stretches from Joey Dee’s Starliters to The Rascals. I was wondering whether The Animals and Friends were limber enough, or let’s be cruel, good enough, to do the soul tunes justice. I was also wondering what propelled a songwriter of his stature to be trekking around small venues. I decided it was love of playing.
The answer was that most often, Cropper played to their style, rather than his own. He did Time is Tight and In The Midnight Hour, and told great stories about co-writing Water and 634-5789. But his set was interspersed by Barton singing I Put A Spell On You and Hallelujah I Love Her So, in other words, early 60s R&B staples. Williamson sang his own blues composition, Justify My Life, which is stylistically similar. The strongest song of Cropper’s set was 634-5789, boosted by backing vocals from Barton, Gallagher and Williamson. The instrumentals, Time is Tight and Hip Hug Her were stellar, truly stellar, because Micky Gallagher’s keyboard parts were brilliant. I thought him in the very first rank of rock keyboard players. Cropper, standing close to the keys and smiling obviously thought so to. ‘He plays it like it ought to be played’ he announced. I thought his ability must be what prompted Cropper to play with these guys. Cropper also watched with admiration, as Williamson took fluid and elegant guitar solos too. Cropper is, of course, an astonishing guitarist.
There was a story about writing Dock of The Bay, and that’s where I thought the band revealed their limitations. Cropper’s voice can’t compare with Otis Redding obviously, and the band couldn’t hit the feel and subtlety of the MGs either. It was pretty dire all round. I lost the illusion of greatness for a moment there. Cropper’s set ended with Soul Man, great, but it could have been better if Barton’s much more powerful voice had duetted throughout in Sam & Dave style rather just singing SOUL MAN in the chorus. Retrospectively, it would have helped to have Barton sing at least one verse of In The Midnight Hour too. He’s a hard singer to follow.
Cropper went off and the Animals did an excellent version of Boom! Boom! and then We Gotta Get Outta This Place with audience participation, and a storming House of The Rising Sun. Gallagher’s playing beats the original, and Barton’s singing just about equalled it, even if it was taken a tad too fast. They got a standing ovation, then Cropper came back for Green Onions. The end.
That was a problem in etiquette and dynamic. House of The Rising Sun is a stomping great Transatlantic number one smash hit. The version that inspired Dylan, hearing his adaptation bounced back at him, to go electric.
Green Onions is one of the coolest grooves ever. Any sensible set order would reverse them (then leaving Cropper on for House of The Rising Sun, which shouldn’t be a problem). As it was, even a fabulous version of Green Onions, was an anti-climax.