Back on Top.
18th January 2002
Originally published in Wavelength magazine.
Think (Red Hot Pokers)
Meet Me in the Indian Summer
Naked in the Jungle
Ain’t That Loving You Baby
Sometimes We Cry (+ Chris Farlowe)
Jackie Wilson Said
In The Afternoon / Ancient Highway / Meditation
Have I Told You Lately
Bright Side of The Road
Star of The County Down
It’s All over Now Baby Blue (+ Chris Farlowe)
Brown Eyed Girl
Gloria (+ Chris Farlowe)
Stand By Me ((+ Chris Farlowe)
No, I can’t … it’s just too obvious … oh, alright. Title this review Back on Top then. I’ve been a severe critic of the Red Hot Pokers since their dire debut at Poole with Linda Gail Lewis. I’ve seen them twice since, and grudgingly admit they’ve been slowly learning. The last two years must have been the steepest learning career of their lengthy careers at the pub end of the business. Even I have to admit they’re improving considerably. Maybe the band uniforms (black suits and green shirts) help. Their performance last night suggest that Van has taught them a great deal.
The evening started with that rarity, a support set by Chris Farlowe where no one retreated to the bar. Much better than the last couple of times I’ve seen him, too. Then the main act started with the Red Hot Pokers on ‘Think’. My worst fears were aroused. They really can’t cut it on a song like this which so many greats have done. However when Van came on blowing his sax it was immediately better. Because he has added the horn section and a decent keyboard player, the Red Hot Pokers are less exposed, and throughout the evening a lot of work was evident in arrangments and rehearsal. This was the band I saw at the Larmer Tree Festival in summer 2001 and they were vastly improved. I like the instrumental start with Celtic Swing.
Looking at recent set lists on the Wavelength website, Van reversed the order of the new ones, starting with Meet Me in the Indian Summer and moving on to Whatever Happened? I got the titles off the website – my notepad had “Endless Summer???” on it which shows I wasn’t catching the words too well. That was a surprise start, and most artists would warm the audience with something more familiar … but both sounded promising. The show seemed much more arranged and orchestrated than recently, and that was positive. It was noticeable that songs started with intricate instrumental sections, whereas in the recent past you got the idea that Van kicked in and they picked up. It was good to see flute back in the act. Naked in the Jungle was carefully arranged and was followed by Ain’t That Loving You Baby. Not an inspiring song really. He brought Chris Farlowe on to duet on Sometimes We Cry, and the show clicked up a gear. On this show, Chris Farlowe was used as an accompanying singer for set pieces, rather than turning up for the jam. Van always needs a good backing singer (and Ned Edwards isn’t it). Given the lack of a first rate singer in the band, it makes sense to use Chris Farlowe more carefully. Farlowe did a great support opener too- with Handbags and Gladrags and Out of Time of course, but the highlight of Farlowe’s support set was the Small Faces’ All or Nothing.
Jackie Wilson Said was smoothed, and not the best I’ve heard it, but things got better. The high point of the act was a magnificent In The Afternoon / Raincheck / Ancient Highway / Meditation – you need a degree in Vanology to trace the title content of these medleys accurately. This had the dynamics, the reaching into the mystic I always hope for (I started the clichés with Back on Top, so let’s continue. I will try to avoid writing either Van the Man or Belfast Cowboy). He took the band down to near silence – someone could point out where the volume control on a Precision bass is though. The lights followed the music down. It was back to that 1980s style which he used to do so effectively. Sadly, it was a piece of coloration in a deliberately eclectic set rather than a sign of where things were heading. Never mind, that alone was worth the price of admission.
Have I Told you Lately was OK, but In the Afternoon was an impossible number to follow immediately. Van picked up the acoustic guitar for what I had noted as Midnight Special (in might have been Midnight Cannonball which is noted on a lot of 2001 setlists). Bright Side of The Road was rearranged, smoothed out, but very welcome. The next number had Van on guitar again with Ned moving to fiddle, and I loved it. Star of the County Down. After that, he could have played right through Irish Heartbeat and I’d have gone home satisfied (I’m not trying to force in Van song titles, but they keep happening).
When he started Precious Time I felt he was heading for the end a little earlier than expected, and it was a neat version. In most of my Van reviews I take a sideswipe at Help Me. I have the impression that he does it on every single show. Looking back at the setlists proves he doesn’t. He just does it every time I see him. So much so that I even wondered if he reads Wavelength avidly and said ‘Bournemouth. That’s the place where that stupid fucking bastard keeps knocking Help Me. We’ll do it’. (P.S. I know I’m kidding myself). Great harmonica. Mercifully compact compared to some 12 minute versions I’ve sat through. Then Chris Farlowe appeared again for a stunning It’s All Over Now Baby Blue. Van’s association with the song goes right back to the days of Them and I’ve heard a few versions. This was far and away the best I’ve heard Van do it, the best I’ve heard anyone do it. I even played a couple of Dylan versions and Van boots when I got home to check that I was right. No question. Perfection, and all credit to Chris Farlowe who was an equal participant in its success.
I like the fact that Van doesn’t mess about by having the band go off before the encores. Brown-Eyed Girl started them off, and he now seems happily at home with a song he used to get funny about. Chris Farlowe was back for a strong, confident Gloria. The closing song was Stand By Me. The two duetted again and were thoroughly enjoying themselves. Van got so active stamping around that I almost expected him to go into his Last Waltz high-kick dance routine. Great song. Great performance.
It was (as before in Bournemouth) the opening gig of a small tour. I’d guess a US tour must be coming. You could tell that the show was more planned than usual, and I’m told that a back-to-back Brown Eyed Girl and Gloria is always a sign of imminent trans-Atlantic travel. It still perplexes me that he devotes so much time to covers like Ain’t That Loving You Baby and Help Me, but can’t find a place in the set for … well, any two from two hundred of his own compositions that are vastly superior. The icing on the cake was that you got a free 2001 T-shirt with every purchase of a 2002 T-shirt. So, £12 for the two. My wife says, ‘but you never wear them …’ Downside was that by the time I got to the table they’d sold out of “Glory Bound” the new Chris Farlowe CD.