How do you put on a show by a band whose lead singer is dead, whose most famous member is no longer interested in performing with you, whose third-most-prominent member is also doing his own thing instead, and where the rest of the band consists of a saxophonist, a drummer who doesn’t play drums much any more, a spoon player, a player of the musical saw, and a trumpet player who quit the band after their first single?
The answer, if you’re Rodney Slater, the de facto leader of the current iteration of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, is “very well indeed”.
The Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band were one of the great bands of the late 60s. Starting out as a trad jazz comedy band, playing novelty songs from the twenties and thirties, they switched to playing rock and roll when their trumpet player, Bob Kerr, quit after their first single to be in the New Vaudeville Band and took their entire act with him.
After their first album, Gorilla, percussionist Sam Spoons and banjo/musical saw player Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell left the band (and at the same time the band dropped the “Doo-Dah” from its name, becoming just the Bonzo Dog Band), and for the remainder of their career they consisted of frontman Vivian Stanshall, one of the most astonishing but undisciplined performing and songwriting talents of his generation (John Peel once said that he was one of only two actual geniuses ever to go into rock and roll, the other being Stanshall’s friend Captain Beefheart); “straight man” Neil Innes, the most musically disciplined member of the band and the other principal songwriter; saxophonists Roger Ruskin Spear (who also wrote a song or two per album) and Rodney Slater; and tap-dancing drummer “Legs” Larry Smith, along with various bass players (they seemed to go through bass players like Spinal Tap through drummers).
The band’s recording career was relatively brief — four albums between 1966 and 1970, plus a contractual obligation “reunion” album from 1972, Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly, which was a Stanshall/Innes duo album in all but name — but covered an immense stylistic range, from covers of novelty songs like “My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies” and “The Monster Mash”, through jazz-rock (“Keynsham”, which sounds for all the world like Zappa’s “Son of Mr. Green Genes”), surreal spoken-word comedy (“Rawlinson End”, “Big Shot”, “Rhinocratic Oaths”), and straight Beatle-esque pop (“I Want To Be With You”).
They remained popular enough to reunite, complete with Doo-Dah, in 2006, sadly without Stanshall, who had died in 1995. All seven surviving former members (Innes, Spear, Slater, Smith, Spoons, Bohay-Nowell, and Kerr) got together for a fortieth-anniversary reunion tour (the band had actually formed in 1962, but the anniversary was dated from their first record), and a subsequent album, Pour l’Amour des Chiens, which was a good fourteen-track album struggling to escape from a mediocre twenty-eight-track one.
But there were tensions between Spear and Innes about the direction of the band — they were performing with a large backing band and several celebrity guest vocalists to cover for the absent Stanshall. Spear wanted to do shows as just the original members, which Innes thought unworkable, and so the band split up again. Innes continued to tour solo and with the Rutles, and the other members went back to their previous projects (Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band and the Bill Posters Will Be Band) or performed as Three (or sometimes five) Bonzos And A Piano.
There was a fiftieth anniversary reunion last year, without Spear (who currently performs with his own Bonzo Bills band), and on the lines Innes wanted, with guests including Tim Brooke-Taylor and Brian Blessed. But Innes has once again bowed out, and the band now consists of Slater, Smith, Kerr, Spoons, and Bohay-Nowell.
One might think that this would present something of a problem, but rather astonishingly the remaining Bonzos manage to pull off a show which is, if not as innovative and astonishing as their best work, still more than enjoyable enough to qualify as one of the best shows I’ve seen all year.
About half the show is, essentially, one of those tribute acts that feature an original band member. When the show opened (with “Death Cab For Cutie”, the song the Bonzos performed in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film), the band on stage consisted of Slater and Kerr on horns, along with David Caitlin-Birch (a Paul McCartney impersonator who also collaborated with Stanshall in his last years, and covered Stanshall’s parts on the previous reunion tours) on guitar, John “Barry Wom” Halsey (of the Rutles, among other bands) on drums, keyboardist David Glasson (who has worked with various Bonzos since the 70s, most notably as the piano in Three Bonzos and a Piano), bass player Michael Sked, and vocalist Michael Livesey.
This band all know the Bonzos’ music well — and Slater’s uniquely skronking horn sound is, other than Stanshall’s vocals, the most distinctive aspect to their music — and if you closed your eyes you could often be listening to the recordings. The one weak link is Livesey. Livesey is a huge fan of Stanshall (I didn’t recognise him on stage, but he’s been responsible for the recent stagings of Stanshall’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson End), and vocally is spookily similar to him.
Unfortunately, Livesey has a blokeish stage presence which really doesn’t fit the band at all — the band’s image when Stanshall was frontman was always of a slightly camp, shoddy, decaying glamour, and most of the band in their own ways kept that image last night. Livesey, though, was a rock frontman — a fat, bearded, man (there is nothing wrong with those things — he physically resembles me quite a bit) wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a joke about lager on it, and banging a tambourine. Vocally, Livesey is stunningly accurate, but the Bonzo Dog Band need a frontman with something of the character of Jarvis Cocker, and Livesey just doesn’t work in the role.
(My recommendation would be that they let Caitlin-Birch take over the role, as he did for large portions of the 2006 shows. He is less vocally similar to Stanshall, but he’s got the right stage manner and look, and is a better singer than Livesey).
Edit: Livesey has, in the comments to this review, pointed out that his stage costume was lost in transit that night, and he normally appears very different. So disregard that one criticism. My judgement of his stage persona was coloured by something out of his control, and as I said, vocally he was stunningly close to Stanshall at times. I don’t have enough information to say what impression I would have had he been in costume.
But to concentrate on one bad point gives the wrong impression. For the songs where those seven people were on stage without the others (half the set, give or take), what we had was an extremely good, straight, performance of songs like “Keynsham”, a medley of “Rawlinson End” and “Rhinocratic Oaths”, “Look Out, There’s A Monster Coming”, “Busted”, and “My Pink Half of the Drainpipe”, as well as a couple of Slater’s songs from the Three Bonzos and a Piano albums, “Senior Moments” and “Ginger Geezer”.
But when the show really came alive was when the other three members were on stage. The other three Bonzos (two of them in their seventies, and Bohay-Nowell in his mid-eighties) sang their fair share of vocals (Spoons on “Jollity Farm” and “Hunting Tigers”, Smith on “Canyons of Your Mind”, Bohay-Nowell on “Falling in Love Again”, and Smith and Bohay-Nowell doing a wonderful duet on “We Were Wrong”, among others), but their main role was to act as clowns to the backing band’s straight men.
The comedy elements they added were, for the most part, the kind of music-hallisms that would seem a bit dated even for I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (a typical example is “Legs” Larry Smith’s joke (in his pseudo-American “Mr Wonderful” voice) “what could be better than roses on a piano? Tulips on an organ”), or slapstick (Spoons setting up a plank and log as a see-saw, stepping on one end, gesturing for Kerr to jump on the other end and send him flying, and the plank breaking). But these are people who’ve been doing this kind of thing for more than fifty years, and much as with I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue the appeal is at least in part in the audience and performers all knowing how corny the material is.
Sam Spoons, in particular, is a revelation. He’s not only still a surprisingly good percussionist (on spoons and washboard, and also playing second drum-kit for a reasonable proportion of the set), but he’s a terrific physical comedian. His routine as a ventriloquist’s dummy during “Little Sir Echo” was a highlight of the 2006 tour, and worked even more effectively here, but he also took on a good part of what had previously been Spear’s prop-comedy role (though without Spear’s “robots”), as well as dressing up in a variety of outlandish costumes, whether as a monster during “The Monster Mash”, a big-game hunter on “Hunting Tigers Out In Indiah”, or the eponymous bird in “Mr. Slater’s Parrot”, running through the audience putting the mic in their faces and getting them to say “hello!”
The backing band may have been what made the music sound like the Bonzos, but it was the performances of Spoons, Smith, and Bohay-Nowell (and of Slater, who had less opportunity to mess about as he was playing sax or clarinet throughout) that turned the show from a tribute show which would have had too reverent a feel into a proper Bonzos show.
Innes and Spear are clearly missed (and obviously no-one could ever replace Vivian Stanshall), but other than the lack of Innes’ vocals on a handful of songs this was actually more enjoyable in many ways (if more shambolic at times) than the 2006 tour. There’s only a couple more shows on this tour, but if they tour again and you’ve been doubtful about seeing them without those two core members, take the opportunity.
(Oh, and one thing that has nothing to do with the show, but was fun. I took my mum along to see this, and was mentioning to her that at pretty much every gig I go to I see someone I know in the audience. And then it turned out that Ste, the singer from my old band, was sat two seats away from me.)
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