Last Wednesday evening, I had the pleasure of finally seeing a long time favorite in concert. When I say long time, I’ve been a fan of Hugh Cornwell since 1978 when my friend Charles dropped the needle on his copy of “Black + White” and “Tank” roared from the radio station speakers. I bought all of the Stranglers albums, and when Hugh left that band in the 90s, I continued to follow him along his eventful solo career. I’ve followed his tours for at least a decade on his website, but was continually vexed by the propensity of Mr. Cornwell to tour almost everywhere but the Southeast US, where I have lived for over 40 years.
This finally came to an end on his current tour. Hugh’s occasional trek to Atlanta usually coincided with poverty on my part, so I’d missed him once or twice in the last five years there. I saw with interest that he was playing Simth’s Olde Bar again on December 3rd and made plans to attend that lasted for all of ten seconds, until I saw he was playing the Tremont Music Hall in Charlotte the next night. The difference this year, was that I came to grips this year with the idea of amortizing my large music collection in order to enjoy new music and a lot of out of town concerts/festivals that I would otherwise have no money for. So again, thanks are in order to Duran Duran for retaining a huge, fanatical fanbase over thirty years after their founding!
We arrived in Charlotte, which was a mere two hour trip from our North Carolina home as opposed to the four hour trek that Atlanta represented. We had very recently hit Atlanta and nearby Athens already on the seemingly endless Golden Rocktober Tour® as I’d caught many great shows bookending my recent 50th birthday. This would be the last one for the time being as things finally quieted down. Our waitress at the insanely great raw food restaurant asked where we were going that evening and when we mentioned the Tremont Music Hall she gave us fair warning about the vibe there. Like many rock clubs, it was in a dingy, industrial part of town and had lots of “atmosphere.” When we got there, we parked and said a prayer that our car would not get boosted before heading into the club.
The Tremont had added a second opening act to the bill days before the show, so we exercised our inalienable right to blow them off and sit and enjoy our dinner without rushing in response. Having missed first opener Blossoms, when we arrived in at the near-empty club between sets, the second band was setting up. The Temperance League were a rock band of little distinction. Their twitchy lead singer did not endear himself to us with his performance style, but in all candor, I’d heard worse. Their pumped up pop rock neither excited nor repelled. of the dozen or so people in the club, I had the horrible sinking feeling that this might be as good as it got, with the prospect of their followers deserting after their set, leaving the great Mr. Cornwell with an audience consisting of myself, my wife [who was also a Stranglers fan for as long as we’ve been together], and a hairy, biker-looking gent whom I’ve since discovered was the lead singer of ANTiSEEN!
Fortunately, this was not the case, and after The Temperance League broke down their gear, the club seemed to come alive with a relative influx of 40-50 people, even if many members of The Temperance League were staying to see the headliner. My wife later commented, “they were probably busy taking notes!” Indeed. If they want to see how to present witty and mordant rock music in a power trio format at a time when Warren Zevon’s been dead for a decade and your only real competition is Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, you can’t do much better than Hugh Cornwell!
With a rhythm section consisting of Darius Minwalla and Steve Fishman, reprising his “Totem + Taboo” turn on bass, Cornwell played hot, no-nonsense leads on the material that turned up the energy a notch or two from the already steaming Steve Albini-led recording. He wisely opened with the powerful title cut to his album of this summer and proceeded to play the bulk of it, intercut every other song with a parallel thread of Stranglers back catalogue to the exclusion of any material from his previous sextet of studio solo albums, to say nothing of his many collaborative side projects [CCW, Sons Of Shiva, “Nosferatu”]. He let the audience know his modus operandi right up front, so if there was anyone there pining for “Another Kind Of Love,” I didn’t see it. When confronted with an album as immediate and successful as “Totem + Taboo,” this was not a bad choice at all. For my first time seeing Hugh Cornwell in 35 years of fandom, I certainly had no complaints.
“Nice + Sleazy” from my entreé to The Stranglers, 1978’s “Black + White,” was next on the stage and having a lean, hot trio attacking this cut gave it refreshing urgency, particularly without the strident, atonal synth solos that Dave Greenfield was wont to give this one back in the day. It was fascinating to hear how the Stranglers material got a big arrangement overhaul live to remove the hardly modest reliance of the material on Greenfield’s keyboards. Fishman had no problem stepping into the truculent boots of JJ Burnel’s signature heavy bass sound when he needed it, and he was no slouch on the vocal harmonies either. This gave Cornwell, the room to maneuver wide and far on lead guitar without sharing the stage with keys on these songs. For his part, Minwalla followed the lead of Chris Bell [ex-Thompson Twins] and his clattering, Keith Moon-like fills on the “Totem + Taboo” album. The result was robust, meaty rock that was still touched by the sophistication of the Stranglers, yet taken to different conclusions by the evening’s power trio format.
My favorite Stranglers song was performed right up front in the set and I was spellbound to hear “Duchess” from “The Raven” come to life without a hint of the flowing synth-harpsichord leads that typified the still-spellbinding original version. When that distinctive stop-start intro began the song, all the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I was astounded to hear it transposed to a completely different vibe entirely this evening …and it was still fabulous. I certainly hope that live recordings from this tour make their way to the Hugh Cornwell webstore as the vast differences in the vibe were fascinating. That the end result was still a “Duchess” to the core was a testament to Cornwell and his band’s boundless talents.
“Stuck In Daily Mail Land” was an immediate earworm from the “Totem + Taboo” album. The song plays out like some wonderful Kinks obscurity brought to stuttering life in this band’s hands. The middle eight sports drum fills that seem all but ripped from the Keith Moon playbook and the mixing of Kinks/Who DNA gets on like a house on fire while Cornwell’s lyrics are easily a match for the pen of Ray Davies.
The appearance of “Hanging Around” next in the playlist got a real rise from the front row as Cornwell picked key songs from most of the Stranglers canon to pepper his set. When I recognized the delicate intro to “Skin Deep” a jolt went through my body as not just one of my favorite Stranglers songs but one of my favorite songs ever written by anyone, was finally being performed 20 feet in front of me! The new arrangement was vibrant and punchy with only a little of the delicacy of the original lost without the airy backing vocals and synths of the original version. These new arrangements were very impressive work, indeed!
Hugh’s new single is the catchy “God Is A Woman” and this fit nicely in the middle of his taut, 75 minute set. The next Stranglers tune was their huge-selling classic “Golden Brown,” that waltz-time ode to the charms of heroin that nonetheless topped or nearly topped the charts all over the UK and Europe. This was the vintage number that got pulled the furthest from its comfort zone during the evening’s entertainment. It bore only scant resemblance to the song I hope you’re familiar with, and was the one song that I remain unsure about its recasting. The power trio format seems too muscular for this delicate number. However, Cornwell has added a B-side to his “God Is A Woman” digital EP that shows that it sounds frankly awesome as played by a Mariachi trio backing him!
The sardonic “Gods, Guns + Gays” followed and it is a new number that certainly only Cornwell could pen. The cold ending of this number is an all time classic of its kind. It was followed by the late classic Stranglers song, “Always The Sun.” The failure of this song to attain a stranglehold on the top of the charts always stymied me. Here, it was a delight to hear Cornwell performing the distinctive fluttering guitar solo in the middle eight in the flesh. With that song over, the set ended with the urgency of “A Street Called Carroll” The taut riff rocker was a great way to end the set with impact. The band took the time to take two then came back for some encores. This time a pair of Stranglers early period classics: “Grip” and “No More Heroes.” My wife missed “Peaches,” but it was not to be this night.
The evening’s show, with a small but enthusiastic crowd at the Tremont could have been a depressing event. Fortunately, Cornwell and band hit the material with gusto and verve. It was great fun seeing Cornwell really get into the guitar playing since the trio format gave little room to hide with each member shouldering a large chunk of the sound. House sound was loud and punchy, but still shy of “too loud.” I would have liked vocals a little higher in the mix, but I always say that. I was very happy to have finally seen this titan in the flesh; one more musician to check off “the ones that got away” list. The next morning I woke up in the pre-dawn hours with “Stuck In Daily Mail Land” playing on the internal jukebox non-stop. Mission accomplished.
After the encore, an amiable Cornwell decamped to the merch zone and was happy to sign, sell, and snap a photo with the random thunderstruck fan. Myself, I opted for a copy of the merch-only “Beyond Acoustic Fields” CD since I love the notion of Cornwell performing “unplugged” demos for the one album of his missing from the Record Cell. Memo to self: track down a copy of “Beyond Elysian Fields” since the acoustic demos as recorded by Tony Visconti [with Hugh playing Mr. Bowie’s guitar] were fantastic songs.
Hugh was happy to sign this and a poster of the evening’s show and the man came equipped with a silver Sharpie®! Smart move for a maninblack. Cornwell is currently with the bulk of his East Coast tour still ahead of him. Do yourself a favor and catch him if he’s nearby. The current set works like a charm and he is a man on top of his game, but he’s testing the waters with his second novel and he probably won’t be on the rock treadmill forever.
Hugh Cornwell | Tremont Music Hall | Dec. 4, 2013
- Totem + Taboo
- Nice + Sleazy
- I’d Like One Of Those
- Stuck In Daily Mail Land
- Hanging Around
- Bad Vibrations
- Skin Deep
- God Is A Woman
- Golden Brown
- God, Guns + Gays
- Always The Sun
- A Street Called Carroll
- [Get A] Grip [On Yourself]
- No More Heroes
Hugh Cornwell | US East Coast Tour 2013
Dec. 6 | The Record Collector | Bordentown, New Jersey [solo acoustic]
Dec. 7 | The Brighton Bar| Long Branch, New Jersey
Dec. 8 | Highline Ballroom | New York City
Dec. 10 | Sellersville Theatre | Philadelphia
Dec. 11 | Church Of Boston | Boston
Dec. 12 | Tralf Music Hall | Buffalo [solo acoustic]
Dec. 13 | 31st Street Pub | Pittsburgh
Dec. 14 | Small’s Bar | Detroit
Dec. 15 | Lee’s Palace | Toronto
Dec. 16 | This Ain’t Hollywood | Hamilton, Ontario
Dec. 17 | Beachland Ballroom | Cleveland
Dec. 18 | Reggie’s Rock Club | Chicago
Dec. 19 | The Belmore | Minneapolis
– 30 –