In a solo career interrupted by a stretch at Her Majesty’s pleasure (for, among other things, allegedly threatening to cut off a female flight attendant’s hands en route from Paris to Manchester), Ian Brown’s first two albums have proven — although John Squire might disagree — that there is life after the Stone Roses.
The unpolished Unfinished Monkey Business (1998) augured reasonably well for Brown’s potential following the demise of the band that, for a fleeting moment at the end of the ’80s, promised to be the greatest English rock contender of the next decade. Then last year’s Golden Greats left no doubt that he had risen from the ashes with an album that seamlessly melded the beats and grooves of electronica with rock in a passionate, textured whole.
Given his pedigree and given the strength of his solo outings, it was no surprise then that Brown should have filled the Bowery Ballroom to capacity with punters eager to see him deliver the goods in concert. However, as the show unfolded — or better put, unraveled — it became apparent that the man known as King Monkey is another beast entirely in the live arena.
Brown swaggered on and began the show alone, singing to the accompaniment of a minimal backing track. The result — which lasted for an uncomfortably long time — was not unlike bad, drunken karaoke at your cousin’s wedding: often flat, out-of-time/tune vocals high in the mix atop muted music. Although the rest of the band finally took the stage to rectify the false start, the ensuing version of “Love Like a Fountain” hinted that the anti-climactic opener was to be a blueprint for the entire gig.
There’s no doubt at all that, on record, Brown has the songs — but that certainly didn’t come across last night. Admittedly, the band seemed to be having technical difficulties throughout the set — each track being punctuated with increasingly fraught gesticulations to the sound booth — and that might account, in part at least, for the way in which all the subtleties of texture that make Golden Greats so successful were completely lost.
The decision to play with a three-person band comprising a drummer, percussionist and synth/keyboard player only compounded the problems. The input of a live bass player and guitarist — a la Tricky, Portishead or Reprazent — might have made a world of difference, not only adding an edge to the distinctly restrained and bland affair but also filling out the sound and taking the onus off Brown’s frequently inadequate vocals.
Distinctive and effective as Brown’s voice is, it remains that it only works as part of a well-mixed sonic context which was painfully absent. Not only was the music dwarfed by the overly foregrounded vocals but the poor integration of its individual components, coupled with the curious lack of any respectable volume, further reduced the proceedings to the level of a plodding, stripped-down jam session.
A bigger band would have also given the crowd more to look at instead of Brown marching on the spot for the duration and — for no apparent reason — compulsively whispering tsch-tsch into the microphone. While, like Liam Gallagher and Tim Burgess (men of equally limited stage-presence), Brown’s quirky, enigmatic charisma works perfectly when backed with a full sound, it can’t carry the show on its own. Last night this became excruciatingly obvious as Brown’s antics — the occasional donning of a white Kangol hat for old times’ sake, a lame magic trick with a drum stick, a bit of Tai Chi and a spot of Marcel Marceau thrown in for good measure — fell embarrassingly flat.
Tracks from Golden Greats like “So Many Soldiers” — which saw the only guitar (albeit acoustic) of the evening — and “Set My Baby Free” were completely lost in the poor live translation, coming across as damp cardboard cut-outs of their recorded incarnations. Particularly unfortunate was the rendering of “Gettin’ High,” all but shorn of its searing big guitar and thudding beat that make it such a success on the album. Granted, Brown did manage to get the volume cranked up midway through the song, but it never really took off. Another album standout, “Dolphins Were Monkeys,” fell foul of the technical snafus, its funky signature keyboard only kicking in belatedly, much to the chagrin of its operator.
Although “Golden Gaze,” with its Arthur Lee-esque opening, and the dub-inflected “First World” fared better, the more effective tracks came from Unfinished Monkey Business: the dark “Corpses in their Mouths” jump-starting things a little and the anthemic “My Star” — interpolating a snatch of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” — raising the crowd’s flagging spirits somewhat.
Brown brought the evening to an unspectacular end with the inevitable “Billie Jean” — prefaced with a half-arsed attempt at a moonwalk. While it’s all well and good to do novelty covers, there ought to be a point to it: either humor or some kind of transformation that strikes a dialectical balance between the remembered, original version and its rewriting. However, Brown’s reading of the Gloved One’s song is neither funny nor intelligent, only an exercise in futility that begs the question “er, so what?” It was really no different from doing a note for note cover of “Smoke On the Water” or “My Heart Will Go On.” The absence of an encore seemed to be the final straw for some, whose boos made it clear that they felt short-changed by the 50-minute, lacklustre set.
Legend has it that, when the Stone Roses called it a day after their very public death throes at the 1996 Reading Festival, Ian Brown entertained the idea of packing in music for a career in landscape gardening, but then thought better of it. There’s still time for a career change and, on the strength (or weakness) of Brown’s performance, it wouldn’t be at all ill-advised.
On “Gettin’ High,” Ian Brown sings about being able to astound without even having to try. Golden Greats, in particular, shows his self-confidence to be well-placed, but live he needs to try much harder to be even a shadow of the image he seems to have of himself. Sadly, those of us hoping to witness the triumph of King Monkey last night were treated to an evening of entertainment that was about as engaging as Beneath the Planet of the Apes.