Live Review: The Good, The Bad & The Indifferent
I don’t go to concerts to have a bad time. I would prefer, as would most people, to come home from a gig believing that my time was well-spent and that I was somewhat enriched by the experience.
Which makes last week’s New York City debut by The Good, The Bad & The Queen all the more disappointing. This “project,” in case you haven’t heard, features one member each of Blur/Gorillaz (vocalist Damon Albarn), The Clash (bassist Paul Simonon), The Verve (guitarist Simon Tong), and Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 (drummer Tony Allen). As far as supergroups go, this shouldn’t be able to get much better. Unfortunately, this is one occasion where the total adds up to something very much less than the sum of its parts.
And so, before figuring why it was so damn underwhelming, let’s focus on the positive: Paul Simonon, out of retirement and back on the bass. At Webster Hall, his simple but deep tones cut through everything; they were the bedrock of the band. When he played reggae lines, he was a thrill to hear. He paced the stage with energy, compensating for Albarn’s hesitations. And visually, he remains the absolute epitome of cool, seeming not a day older – nor a clothing item out of place – than when last seen in The Clash.
Now on to the negatives. The album The Good, The Bad & The Queen promises a healthy mix of Britpop, Afrobeat and reggae, but we’ve been living the Global Village for decades already and any number of electronic musicians have already been there, done that; besides, the reality is that, while its subleties reward repeated listening, every song actually sounds like Side 2, Track 5 of Blur’s unrecorded Londonlife music hall ballads album. Songs about bunting (‘The Bunting’) and whales swimming up the Thames (‘The Northern Whale’) are all well and good in theory, but in this case, they form neither part of a concept album, a rock album nor a solo album. Everything about The Good, The Bad & The Queen is just somewhere in-between.
Given how this “project” would surely not have been realized without Albarn, he must take the blame for its shortcomings. He seems scared to have taken the reins. Perhaps it’s hard to tell the 67-year old Tony Allen, who spent years coping with the mercurial Fela Kuti, how you want the drums to sound; maybe Simon Tong has his own ideas on how to keep it minimal; who would want to give orders to amyone from The Clash? At Webster Hall, The Good, The Bad & The Queen were like four different musicians playing in four different groups. The lack of cohesion was frightening; at one point, everything fell out of synch, which is excusable if you’re a new indie band besotted by nerves, but less so if you’re middle-aged musicians of apparent pedigree. Why do I get the feeling there has not been much by way of rehearsal?
Here’s what we got. The Good, The Bad & The Queen played their eponymous album from start to finish, in order. (Just like Pink Floyd used to do.) Damon strode around in a top hat and tails, singing pleasantly, occasionally playing pub piano, and proving his jack-of-all-trades status with some melodica. He also introduced songs with forced nervousness and mumbling, like he was trying to deflect attention from himself. (It backfired.) Simonon joined in occasionally on vocals. Tong was near invisible and only barely audible. And Allen, if he didn’t actually wish to be somewhere else, certainly played like it. The string quartet offered nothing that hasn’t been heard a thousand times before. The bunting decorations were second-tier. Simonon’s charcoal backdrop was fine. We were teased with a snippet of the ‘Intermission’ from Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish. ‘Green Fields’ is a great song by any standards. Syrian rapper Eslam Jawaad came on for an encore of ‘Mr. Whippy’ and asked us to throw up peace signs, like New York has never witnessed the sight before. Oh, and the support slot was meant to be a break from tradition, but please, if you’re going to give us strippers doing magic stunts, at least it make funny, sexy or violent – we’re New Yorkers, after all, and we are not easily shocked – or else hire the Jim Rose Circus to do it properly.
There is nothing wrong with understatement in a live format: the E Street Band and Massive Attack are just two different yet disparate examples of creative musicians who know/knew how to keep it simple onstage without ever sounding anything less than inspirational. But The Good, The Bad & The Queen never reached that point of simpatico. They simply did not gel in the manner of great bands, nor were they were being led from the front. Only time will tell, but I’d lay a friendly fiver on Albarn, Simonon and Tong meeting each other at an awards ceremony fifteen years from now (chances are, Allen will have passed on by then), where they will admit to each other what they can’t confess to right now: that they didn’t put enough thought into The Good, The Bad & The Queen, that they let the album out and toured it before the concept was fully realized.
The crowd, of course, loved it. But that’s what they paid their $30 for. People are inherently optimistic, and they don’t go out of their way to be disappointed. Mr. Albarn appears to be getting very close to fooling all of the people all of the time.
Damon Albarn is currently completing his first opera.