Eric Burdon at Newcastle City Hall September 2016

September 9, 2016

It’s the second time I’ve seen EB in the last three years, and the third time in my life (in 1968 I saw a charity ref-formation of the original five animals at … Newcastle City Hall). He’s always been a favourite of mine. But this was a far far better performance than at Colne, and that is largely because this is a much more sympathetic band than the one he had in Colne (which featured Billy Watts and Red Young, amongst others – Young in particular had been playing keyboards for EB for some time).

In Colne, however, the first time he had been able to use the name Animals in the UK for a decade, the band was at odds with the audience, and curiously passionless. This time, the band was in sync with the songs, and this in turn meant Eric himself was more at home with his material – with almost all of it, of course, he faces the problem that it is over-familiar. It must be hard to keep singing The House Of the Rising Sun for over fifty years. (Here, it was stripped of Hilton Valentine’s arpeggio, and returned halfway to its origins as a folk song.)

As he left the stage, Eric patted the drummer, Dustin Koester, on the back. The others were bound to receive similar treatment for the way they handled the set. One particular triumph was the inclusion of a small horn section – Ruben Salinas (sax, flute) and Evan Mackey (trombone) – the horns filled out the sound. The Young/Watts band was brittle and flashy in Colne; this was altogether more understated, so that when a solo was more heated – Davey Allen on the keyboards on one occasion, I think in the last number – it was a delight. In Colne the solos sounded like habit. Not here.

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Eric Burdon at the Newcastle City Hall

By by count they performed fourteen songs, including some hybrids, and including two encore numbers (we didn’t get a second encore, which would have been Hold On I’m Comin’, judging by recent performances – a pity). The set list was something like this – I may have a couple in the wrong order:

  1. intro to Ian Dury’s Hit Me With The Your Rhythm Stick/ Spill the Wine
  2. Don’t Bring Me Down
  3. See See Rider
  4. When I Was Young  which segued into
  5. Inside Looking Out
  6. Monterey
  7. Bo Diddley Special (from his most recent album)
  8. In The Pines (a Leadbelly take on a nineteenth century song often recorded as ‘Black Girl’)
  9. Mama Told Me Not To Come
  10. Space Oddity/ Sky Pilot (that’s right – a curious mash-up of a Bowie tribute)
  11. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
  12. The House Of the Rising Sun

Encore:

13. Sinner’s Plea

14. We Gotta Get Out Of this Place

It was an interesting mixture – four from 1966 (Mama Told Me Not To Come was recorded then, but released much later), only three early ones, and three from the 1967/68 incarnation, plus the War single, Spill the Wine. That suited me: if I had to pick a All Comers Top Five, Burdon’s version of See See Rider would be in it. I must have worn out five copies of that single (only a B side in this country), and it suited guitarist Johnzo West’s laconic guitar (very definitely a jam guitarist). In the same way, Monterey, a blistering single from late 1967, suited the bass style of Justin Andres – long loping runs, all propelling the song forward (it’s a list song, a sort of catalogue of the Monterey Pop Festival. This allowed him to tell a story about being given a rose at Monterey by a Hollywood movie actress. ‘I ate it,’ he said, ‘that’s how it was in those days’).

But I was most taken with The Pines (recorded by any number of people, including Nirvana at the end of one of their last appearances). You can read the song a million ways. Is it an adulterous woman lying about where she was (In the pines/ In the pines/ Where the sun never shines) the night before? Or someone hiding from the law/ a vicious man/ white ‘justice’? It’s a good song for EB to have taken up with: he is a good blues talker, always has been, and this mixture of song and recitation is perfect for him. His voice is in great shape – at 75, he hits the higher notes with surprising ease.

The concert itself had a major flaws, for which the promoter needs to be smacked on the hand. Doors opened at the City Hall at 7 for 7.30, and at 7.45, a support act, the local codgers Tex, Leon and Friends, who hobbled through some old favourites, but were best with a cover of Apache. At 8.40 or so, enter Marmalade (or ‘The Marmalade’, as they were announced; pity the Jam wasn’t on the bill …). I was never a fan of Marmalade when they had their first hit with Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da in 1968, and I was just as un-keen on their subsequent hits, although my memory is that the hits weren’t quite their live act. These days, they are pretty workaday, even sludgy and poor in places. And the fact is, they are one of those bands that has successively been deprived of every original member – one of the current lot dates to 1975, but the singer has been with them for fewer than five years. Still, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t much care for them, it was that they persisted for 75 minutes, by which time EB’s fans – and we’re not getting younger – were checking their watches and looking at bus timetables. But there was a further disaster. Chris Cross, unfunny local stand-up and magician, ambled on to try some patter about applause and sword-swallowing. He died. If he hadn’t died, he would have been killed. He deserved to be.

So the Animals came on after 10, and left not long before 12. They carried the 1800 or so crowd with them, by and large, but not all of the crowd. On the balcony, twenty people left during the performance, and I wonder if it was the timing. (The band was late on in Colne, and was roundly slow-hand-clapped, I recall.) But it may have been a false perception of Eric Burdon and the Animals being part of an Oldies package – as in Marmalade. But he isn’t, and he has long since re-arranged his hits from that era, and feels under no compunction to do them all. Good for him. But some of the audience may have been less in touch with him as a brilliant artist still working out how not to be swamped by his back catalogue.

The Animals – L-R Allen, Salinas, Andres, Burdon, West, Koester and Mackey

Two stars for the package. Five for Eric Burdon, though. It is reassuring when a musical idol is still coming up with the goods after five decades.

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Eric Burdon, The Animals, Colne

August 31, 2014

I’ve liked – that isn’t strong enough, since as a young teenager, I used to celebrate his birthday – Eric Burdon for such a long time that it seems a little strange that I haven’t seen him since 1968, when the five original Animals reunited for two sets at Newcastle City Hall, for charity. I was 16, and not quick enough off the mark to get a ticket for the later performance; but I did see the first one (the second was said to have been better, by a friend who bought a ticket for each). So going to see Eric Burdon, now 72, at Colne – his only UK date in three or more years, as far as I can work it out – was an overdue kick. (He headlined on the Sunday night, August 24th.)

Colne, in East Lancashire, was having its 25th anniversary ‘Great British R&B Festival’. (Actually, it wasn’t, it was having the 25th consecutive festival – it can use the 25th anniversary tag next year, since it began in 1990.)

This was the first gig for Burdon since the end of nearly a decade in court came to an end in 2013, with a judge overturning a 2008 decision that the original drummer, John Steel, had the rights to the name ‘The Animals’, something he claimed in 2004. You can read the judgement here. Fittingly, he appeared as ‘Eric Burdon and the Animals’, although any hopes that the one original Animal with whom he is still speaking, guitarist Hilton Valentine, would be there, were soon put to one side.

The venue – ‘The International Stage’ – at Colne turned out to be a pleasantly down-at-heel municipal theatre, capable of taking about 500-600 people (I would say there were fewer), including a balcony, although I opted for a place by the stage, until the pressure on my left eardrum was so severe that I moved away.

The last time I saw The Animals – or Eric, at any rate, since I’ve seen Steel’s outfit, ‘Animals and Friends’ a couple of times – they had grown apart in every way. Steel and Alan Price had left the band (I should say ‘group’, shouldn’t I?) before the end, and been replaced by two musicians, Barry Jenkins and Dave Rowberry, who I thought were actually better. Their last album, Animalism (sic, not to be confused with Animalisms) had been released with no fanfare in the US only – in fact it has still had no official release in the US or UK on CD, and it has never had a release on vinyl in the UK, a weird fact about the best R&B band of the sixties. In 1968, Chas Chandler (died in 1996), the bassist, and Valentine were in denim. Steel was in a smart-casual button-down shirt and tie. Alan Price was in a dinner jacket. And Eric Burdon had long hair, and was wearing a striped poncho. He’d also forgotten the words to ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’.

It has always been a mystery to me how Price was ever allowed to appear onstage with the others, since all the royalties on ‘House of the Rising Sun’ accrue to him. All four of the others say that he wasn’t keen on the song, while Price claims he did the arrangement. It’s suggested that the manager, a truly shady character called Mike Jeffery, and who died in a 1973 plane collision over France, in some way colluded with Price to place his name on the ‘traditional’ song as the arranger. No-one is ever going to know the truth, although Price left the band the moment his first royalty cheque arrived, and on the eve of a Swedish tour, without telling the others. They had to rope in a teenager called Mickey Gallagher for the tour – Gallagher subsequently ended up in The Blockheads, and currently plays for ‘Animals and Friends’ with Steel. But they reunited twice more, once for a tour in the early 1980s, which must have messed with Burdon’s head in no small way, since the song is identified so much with him (I have lost track of the number of times he has re-recorded it, and so has he, I would guess). There is a Japanese CD called ‘Last Concert’ in which you can hear how fed up Burdon is with the venture.

Burdon was asked in a local Colne interview if he had any advice for his teenage self. He starts ‘Never trust your bandmates.’ You can see why.

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Burdon’s band at present must be one of the strongest – he says it is the strongest, but I guess he would – ever to back him. Terry Wilson on bass, Wally Ingram on percussion, Billy Watts on guitar, Tony Braunagel on drums (the last three have all won or nearly won awards) and the veteran Red Young on keyboards. I am going to except Ingram from what follows – he was terrific. But the band was accurate and passionless. It was an average performance, and perhaps the result of the unconscionable time they took setting up – Burdon apologised for them, and said that he would sell any one of them into white slavery if we emailed a name in. He did the right thing. The audience had become restive enough to slow-stamp-their-feet and to sing ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ while the band members tweaked everything. ‘You want it to sound good, right?’ tried Braunagel. The audience wasn’t impressed. Perhaps some of them, like me, had to catch the last train to Preston at 2330.

Is there any good news? Yes. The band may have played without fire (it is bizarrely the case that Mickey Gallagher would have been far, far better), but Eric, all 5ft 6 of him, was in ridiculously good vocal shape. Surprisingly (since he has made three brilliant CDs in the last decade, the most recent, ‘Til Your River Runs Dry, being the best), the balance of the show was a crowd-pleasing hits package, with just three, maybe four from the new CD, and only two (When I Was Young and the curiosity Spill The Wine) from the later sixties. We had Don’t Bring Me Down, Inside Looking Out, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, It’s My Life, We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place, and, inevitably, this being its fiftieth anniversary, House of the Rising Sun. Nothing else came from any time else, unless you count ‘Shake’, which is on that ‘missing’ Animalism album, but had been in the Animals’ repertoire for much longer, and which turned up in an encore that combined Boom Boom, Shake and Around and Around. The surprise, and for me the oustanding number, was I Believe To My Soul, the Ray Charles number that The Animals did so brilliantly on their second album. That was the icing on the cake.

Burdon is a shouter. He doesn’t train or rehearse his voice. He just lets it rip. His idol as a young man was John Lee Hooker, who lived to be 83. (Hooker wrote Boom Boom.) With a bit of luck, Burdon may go further – I hope so. You have to respect a singer who has sustained his enthusiasm for singing songs he first tried out half a century ago.