24 May 2001: The Mercury Lounge - New York.
Cynics might well scoff at the idea of spending an evening in the company of the Bevis Frond. After all, is there really a place in the 21st century for middle-aged Englishmen playing a mixture of acoustic ballads and acid rock laden with guitar solos? And can such a thing ever be done in anything but complete Spinal Tap-style jest? Hard though it may seem to believe, the experience of the Bevis Frond live prompts one to answer both questions in the affirmative, and emphatically so. But just who are the Bevis Frond? Another reasonable question, since they're not exactly a household name vying with the bright young things of British pop and rock for chart spots and media exposure. In their studio incarnation, for the most part, the Bevis Frond have been one man, multi-instrumentalist Nick Saloman, whose prolific and eclectic songwriting is steeped in the traditions of folk, the blues, and psychedelia. In concert, Saloman brings the Bevis Frond to life as a power trio comprising Hawkwind alumnus Ade Shaw on bass and former Camel drummer Andy Ward, although last night Joe Propatier (ex-Silver Apples and Scarce) took Ward's place. Despite Saloman's musical and philosophical roots in the '60s there's a sense in which his work is also grounded in the DIY ethos that grew out of punk in the late '70s. Saloman has always "done it himself" and gone against the grain of corporate rock and its mainstream media representations -- running his own label (Woronzow Records) and publishing the semi-legendary magazine Ptolemaic Terrascope. Employing an approach that would later come to be known as lo-fi, Saloman recorded the first Bevis Frond album, Miasma, in 1987 and put it out on the Woronzow label in a limited run of 250 copies. Fourteen years later, the Bevis Frond have released nearly a score of albums, most recently the critically acclaimed Valedictory Songs (2000). Nevertheless, the band remains "criminally underrated" (as their 1999 US tour t-shirt ironically proclaimed), enjoying a commercially unrewarding cult status. While Saloman's chief influences are the likes of Hendrix, Cream, early Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and the Byrds, his skill as a songwriter enables him to draw on musical leitmotifs from the past and to render them in such a way that his work never appears dated. Despite such influences, his songs are never derivative, and his creative vision is very much his own. The fact that his songs have been recorded by other artists -- for example, Mary Lou Lord and Teenage Fanclub -- is simple testament to his originality. If his work were simply an imitation of rock from a bygone era, then others would hear nothing in his songs to merit a cover version. Last night Saloman's versatile talent was brought sharply into focus by the opening 50-minute acoustic set, delivered with Ade Shaw to an appropriately cult-sized gathering of around 200. The intimacy of the Mercury Lounge was enhanced by Saloman's unpretentious demeanor as he treated the audience to self-deprecating, humorous anecdotes and candid comments about his own insecurities as a writer and performer. Such concerns were, of course, proven completely unwarranted by the songs he then played. Although Saloman noted that all of his songs deal with one of three topics (the '60s; aging and disillusionment; or the poor treatment of women by men), his performance of "On a Liquid Wheel", "It Won't Come Again", and "This Corner of England" suggested that the first two categories blend together. Above all, these songs encapsulate Saloman's gift for articulating nostalgia and a sense of loss without descending into cliched Janis-and-Jimi-and-Jim drivel. Instead, Saloman takes a more personal and culturally specific approach to history and to his place in it. While he writes about the '60s, he doesn't do so exclusively through the lens of American pop culture, but prioritizes his own cultural landmarks as an Englishman and, moreover, as a Londoner. Past or present, his songs display a strong sense of place and identity that's rooted in the lived geography of London, from Portobello Road and the Westway to the Roundhouse and (the recently relegated) Queens Park Rangers football club. With regard to the gender-related category of the Bevis Frond repertoire, Saloman played one of his most "famous" numbers, the twice-covered "He'd Be a Diamond". Additionally, the duo previewed several new tracks. Particularly noteworthy were the folk-inflected "Lost Souls' Day" and "The Return of the Stylites", a song Saloman was inspired to write in response to a detail from a Bosch painting depicting a gentleman defecating into a cauldron (in true medieval fashion). While the acoustic material quietly focused the quality craftsmanship of Saloman's songs, the subsequent hour-long electric set loudly underscored it. Joined by Joe Propatier, the band launched into a massive acid rock assault, heavy on driving rhythms and unremitting guitar freakouts. Plugged in, the Bevis Frond are a trio who make the kind of noise that some five-piece groups can only dream of and with a level of accomplishment that few can match. While musicianship is a dirty word these days, much of the band's appeal derives from its highly skillful playing, which can bowl you over without ever being flashy. Special mention has to be made of Propatier, who must only weigh about 120 pounds but who hits the drums like a man possessed by the spirit and girth of John Bonham. As Saloman led the group through favorites like "Stoned Train Driver", "Hole Song #2", and "God Speed You to Earth", it was a marvelous, often deafening spectacle, particularly in contrast with the composed acoustic preamble. Ultimately, the band ran out of songs -- since Saloman and Shaw had only had 20 minutes to practice with Propatier -- but they brought the evening to a raucous close with an unrehearsed version of "Well Out of It" from London Stone. Strangely, Nick Saloman is often referred to as an anachronism, sometimes even by those who praise his music. This is inaccurate insofar as it implies that what he does is out of context in the present and somehow obsolete. If writing catchy melodic songs, penning lyrics that are both playful and intelligent, and rocking extremely hard are to be considered characteristics of anachronistic music, then that probably explains why so much contemporary pop and rock is so dire and forgettable.