Last night I saw Roy Wood, in the half-empty Warrington Parr Hall. It could have seemed a little depressing, seeing one of the great songwriters of all time play to a half-empty hall, but Wood was so fantastic it was still a wonderful gig.
As this was a Christmas nostalgia night for the Christmas party market, the support act were a Slade tribute band. I don’t really get the point of tribute bands, and have never seen any (other than the Bootleg Beatles as a teenager), and so my main emotion was mild confusion, along with pity for the poor bloke who had to dress as Jim Lea. But in so far as I’m any kind of judge, they were fine at what they did — the lead singer sounded convincingly like Noddy Holder, and at the end I was reminded that Merry Christmas Everyone is a much better song than Roy Wood’s own festive offering — but also that it’s by far Slade’s best single, while I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day is one of Wood’s worst.
(My brother’s Facebook summary of the show — “also saw the best slade tribute act you’ll ever see…. In Warrington… On a Tuesday… At the pyramid.. Ok. They were shit, but Roy Wood was fantastic.” — was a little harsh, though funny.)
After the interval Mark Radcliffe came on to introduce Wood, and went on correctly about how Wood is one of the great unsung geniuses of pop music. Towards the end he also said “I’ve seen the setlist, you’re going to hate it, it’s all his jazz-fusion stuff” — and in a way I wish it had been, because as much as I like the hits, I *love* Wood’s more unusual album material.
Wood came on to an instrumental version of Brontosaurus, and launched into California Man, and from the moment it started it didn’t matter that this was an echoey provincial hall half-full of Christmas partiers — this was one of the greats of popular music in front of us.
And Wood *is* one of the greats of popular music. He’s not at the actual pinnacle with Brian Wilson or Lennon and McCartney, but he’s definitely in the group immediately below them, a talent on a par with Ray Davies and rather better than Pete Townshend; someone who consistently made, for a ten-year period, inventive, exciting, clever music that also managed to be consistently popular.
He’s obviously not in the best of health — he had spinal surgery last year, and was unable to bend down. For this, as with much else, he relied on backing vocalist Shell Naylor, who as well as bending down to get his beer between songs also took a co-lead vocal role on several songs, and also reminded him of where they were in the set — despite the fact that it is exactly the same setlist he’s played every single show he’s done for at least the last five years. His memory seemed to fail him a couple of times in the middle of anecdotes, too.
But he’s still got the voice, the stage presence, and the songs. And he’s got a band that can do them justice. He’s currently touring with seven instrumentalists — bass and drums (actually the current rhythm section from the Climax Blues Band) ,keyboards, and four saxes — and they do a very creditable wall of sound. It works rather better on the Spectoresque Wizzard material than on the more nuanced and delicate Move songs, and sometimes errs a little on the side of slickness — it reminded me slightly of the band that backed the Monkees on their 2011 reunion tour, though in a good way — but Wood’s music is often far more difficult than it sounds and they pulled it off perfectly.
For me, at least, the highlights were all the Move songs — you simply can’t beat Fire Brigade — and Roy’s Revenge, a fiendishly difficult fusion instrumental featuring a drum solo that lasted several minutes; the latter mostly because it was so unexpected in a show that was very much geared around the hits, and gave a little hint of Wood’s other side.
But all those hits were hits for a reason, and hearing a string of them, one after another, makes you appreciate just how brilliant this man really is. In an ideal world Wood would be regarded as one of the great artists of his generation and get the respect that deserves. But on the other hand, people out for a Christmas party in Warrington on a weekday night deserve good music too, and you can’t get much better party music than Are You Ready To Rock? (including Wood playing the bagpipe part — Wood is an incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist who played pretty much everything on his records, though he stuck to guitar otherwise on this show), See My Baby Jive or I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day.
If you get a chance to see Wood live, do so — he only tours in December, and very rarely plays outside the North and Midlands even then, doing just four or five gigs a year. But I’ve travelled down to London many times to see musicians who don’t play outside the South East, and Wood is as worth the trip as they are.
Brontosaurus (instrumental walk-on music)
California Man Ball Park Incident
Kiss Me Goodnight Boadicea
Big Girl’s Blues
New York City
I Can Hear The Grass Grow
Are You Ready To Rock
Flowers In The Rain
See My Baby Jive
I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day