Ian Dury and The Blockheads, The Clash, Madness, Nick Lowe, Rodger Daltrey, Nick Cave, Frankie Goes To Hollywood...as CVs go that’s not a bad line up eh? In a career that’s lasted 47 years and counting Norman Watt-Roy’s been the face with the bass and, despite being just a couple of years away from collecting his pension, he’s clearly showing no signs of slowing down, in fact this is his second gig at the Hare and Hounds in less than 12 months and he's back again in December with The Blockheads! ‘Watt’ a trooper.
First up The Standard Lamps, the band that is, not the household appliance.
With a couple of covers and half a dozen darn fine self penned upbeat country tinged boogie blues tunes (try saying that after a few pints of cider) these Lamps well and truly shone (oh come on now, you’ve got to let me have a few puns). Pick of the covers was their primal version of Shakin’ All Over (which Wilco Johnson himself apparently checked out at a recent gig) featuring some proper gutsy old skool rock ‘n’ roll drumming, the sort that rumbles yer vital organs...you know the kind of thing. Their set closing call to arms...or maybe that should be turntables...You Don’t Listen To Your Records Anymore...galloped along like a mule with a thistle up its arse. Yehawww! Nothing standard about these boys.
If you’re a bassist who knows his or her stuff surely Norman Watt-Roy must be some kind of deity? Mindful of his Indian heritage maybe he actually IS a Vishnu of the bass? Certainly the dexterity and power in those fingers points at some kind of higher force and when Norm get’s his groove on it’s as close to musical heaven as you’re likely to get here on earth. Perhaps what’s most heart warming about watching this dude play though is that the pleasure he still clearly gets from performing some 45 years or so on from when he first hit the road. He’ll suddenly break out into a grin halfway through a solo or a jam with the rest of his band (all highly accomplished musicians in their own right) and it’s a look of pure joy, albeit tinged with just a little (okay then, quite a lot...) bit of perspiration. Kicking off the set with a jazzed up Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, with Norm doing a fine job of filling Ian Dury’s boots (and panties), he’d already put more energy into the set that many bands manage in an entire show. A more sedate stroll through Billericay Dickie, with some accordion adding a little Parisian ooh la la to proceedings, gave everyone a moment to catch their breath. Here's a video from a show earlier this year to give you a little flavour:
These first two tracks pretty much set the template for how Norman tackles the old Blockhead numbers, constantly freshening things up a little without losing the music’s original and distinctive DNA, with both Inbetweenies and More Than Fair – which Norman acknowledges possibly has some of the dirtiest lyrics ever recorded – also benefiting from a little jazzing up this evening.
Tonight’s not just all about the past though. Last year he released a new album Faith and Grace with pick of these tracks including the laid back summertime groove of Wachu-wa, which is apparently how Mexicans sing ‘La la la’. Chuff me, I never knew that. “There ain’t ‘alf been some clever bastards” as his old boss might have said. Norman also took us through life so far in the autobiographical Me, My Bass and I, all the way from India to London via various waterways, a journey he made when he was just four years old. Part spoken word, part instrumental this track contained a couple of memorable quotes that seem to sum up the man. Referring to the departing bass player in one of his first bands Norman concluded that he “Couldn’t take the blisters”. Given the ferocity of some of his bass playing I imagine that by now Norman’s hands are quite possibly the toughest things on planet earth. Later in the same number, after a sublimely jazztastic piano solo from Frank Harrison Norman concluded, with more than a touch of tenderness that “Music was my life. Music is my life. Me, my bass and I”. Let’s hope it’s a long time before he needs a gravestone but what better epitaph than that eh?
Speaking of avoiding Mr G. Reaper Esq. the latter part of Norman’s set celebrated the frankly remarkable news that his old mate, Wilco Johnson, is seemingly on the mend after radical surgery for cancer. To be fair I suspect that Wilco actually just stared the cancer out and it ran away howling in terror but let’s stick with the boring medical explanation eh? Everybody’s Carrying A Gun and When I Was A Cowboy were duly dispatched in fine style doing Wilco proud. Touchingly the encore was his old mate’s traditional tour de force, Roxette. What it may have lacked in mad eyeball popping energy was more than made up by Norman’s obvious delight that before long Wilco will hopefully be right there beside him playing it again. Now that’s what you call the (Dr) Feelgood factor.
PS: I had the very great pleasure of meeting Norman briefly at the end of the show and a more humble man you couldn’t wish to meet. He accepted my gushing praise with a gentle smile and half embarrassed “Thank you”, before popping off to the bar for a post gig G&T. Bless him. All hail the original Ace of Bass (one for fans of 90’s Scandipop there).