The Driver Brothers
“This is about an old friend of mine, who’s still sticking heroin into his veins…”.
So begins Jon Richards aka Ship Of The Sun, as his blend of gentle simplistic acoustic rock and deep baritone country-twanged vocals combine to recite a tale of melancholia that, if truth be told, serves to accentuate his oddness and put a rather too serious spin on what follows. But that seems to be the point, and it’s a relief to discover that there actually is one.
The ex-Joeyfat guitarist is beginning to show some genuine individuality and cohesion since his earlier performances and tonight’s fairly sparse crowd is unsure of what the heck is being presented to them, which is hardly surprising. Richards cuts an interestingly imposing, but somewhat irregular figure up there on that stool, looking rather like a mutant cross between Slash and Lenny Kravitz, but it’s his drawling verbal meanderings that command the most attention. Not for him the “Thank you very much, this is called blah, blah, blah”, as he’d rather try and fuck with people’s minds and demand that people pay him attention, much in the same way that they might humour the nutter on the bus, just in case he suddenly turns nasty. He says that everything he performs is unplanned and it’s all a string of consciousness, and for all we know, he’s probably telling the truth, because one thing is for sure, Jon Richards isn’t from the same planet as the rest of us.
Whereas before Xmas, Richards’ performance on this stage was little more than a frightful mess of untogether and confused nonsense, he’s far more focussed now, making it possible for us to see his work as something tangible and solid rather than whimsical and meaningless. The songs may not have changed that drastically, but they’re at least played better, which considering the minimalist structures involved makes a huge difference to the level of engagement he creates. The occasional glimpses into darker corners mean that his tunes owe as much to Nick Cave as they do Nick Drake, with incidental ripples of Cat Stevens, Tim Buckley, Harvest-era Neil Young, even early Bolan (strangely enough) that widen the scope of comparisons without in any way implying parallels. He kind of blends the styles together, so that the music sounds derivative but difficult to isolate, so that even a Coltrane cover doesn’t sound like a departure. Which is nice.
Richards has material that for the most part is little more than average hippie busker fayre musically, but it’s his slightly sinister, menacing lyrics, and theatrically insane pose that really works in his performance. For example, a song about alchemy and other gold-related references is sweet enough though fails to climax despite it’s unusually off-kilter melody, but it comes as no surprise that he says he wrote it after Robert Johnson visited him in a dream. If anyone else had come out with something like that, it’d be taken in the spirit in which it was probably meant and laughed off with good humour. Richards however, might very well want you to believe it because he possibly believes it himself. It’s hard to tell, and maybe that’s the essence of what makes him difficult to ignore.
On the other hand, it could just be a tenuous link to a convenient excuse to talk about one of their mutual acquaintances. “The Devil Is A Good Friend Of Mine” is perhaps Richards’ most dynamic tune, with the most immediate impact. Bleakly comical and twisted, it’s as infectious as a herpes sore and with lines like “…the last bloke that fucked with him got nailed up to a cross…” it’s got a similar level of social grace.
When all’s said and done though, the Ship Of The Sun is still pretty much moored up in dock. It’s going to take a bit more than this to make it seaworthy, but at least it’s floating well enough to stop him getting his feet wet. Check him out and make up your own mind, because you’ll at least come away with an opinion.
Offering lighter, younger vibes, New Yorker Paul Schneider, self-confessed owner of one of the worst haircuts in the music business is somewhat easier on the ears, the eyes and thankfully, the organ inbetween. Doing his solo thing, now that Rivington is no more, Schneider’s debut solo album “Escape Velocity” was one of the more surprisingly cool offerings of last year among those in the know (i.e. purchased by almost nobody, but since when did that stop anyone?), but this current tour is an opportunity to see him stripped down to bare bones; just him, a guitar and the most skeletal of backing electronics, so that nothing detracts from the essentially minimalist splendour of his tunes.
A number of comparisons come to the fore when presented with Paul Schneider’s work. Though quite easily comparable with David Gray, this singer-songwriter has more of an Elliott Smith meets Elvis Costello feeling to his material, with the faintest trace of Tom Petty stirring within the honeyed vocals. But it’s engaging, intensely listenable and almost irritatingly good stuff, all wrapped up in that left-of-centre indie coating that makes it sound stylish and arty, not in spite of it’s simplicity, but because of it. Put it this way, if you heard it being busked at a tube station, you’d stop no matter how late you were, listen to the end and then chuck the guy all your change.
Schneider might be finding this somewhat jejune and sparse crowd pretty daunting to perform to, but there’s a real feeling of satisfaction coming across when listening to his tunes, and that’s as much from us as it is him. It’s because the songs have an ‘instant’ quality that make you realise that there’s something quite extraordinary going on, with startling amounts of effortless strength in the melodies, and that’s impossible to ignore. As bare as the audience may be, they know that Paul Schneider’s got some damn fine music to offer, such as the grittily raging Americana of “I Remember You”, and Schneider himself knows that he’s got something that can only continue to get bigger and better. He might not have anything approaching true originality, but he knows that he’s got the x-factor that elevates him above the level of wannabe, and into a new level of ‘maybe’. Quality, in other words.
Though occasionally struggling to maintain interest above the rude background chatter of some of the people present, he manages to keep it together with admirable valour and positivity. His stylistics become increasingly diverse as he progresses into the laid-back country swing of “Tourniquet” with a hook that appears out of nowhere, drags you into the tune and tattoos it’s notes onto your brain, demonstrating the depth of his ability beyond the David Gray comparisons. In fact, it could be argued that his Gray-isms are no more than the same ear for a melody that sounds a bit odd, because Schneider’s music has a darker, more seductive bite, so although it may be easy to dismiss him as a Gray rip-off, it would be fairer to regard him as simply coming from a similar direction, though undertaking a more awkward journey.
It’s going to be an interesting ride for Paul Schneider over the course of the next year or so. Being able to write such annoyingly catchy tunes like “Event Horizon” may achieve him considerable recognition in time, and he’s beginning to turn heads already, even though for the most part it might be merely disbelief at that atrocious hairstyle. For now he’s gonna have to ply his trade playing to small audiences in toilets everywhere, so take the opportunity to see him now and become insufferably smug later on. And if nothing actually happens, well, at least you would have enjoyed something decent for a change.
Which is more than can be said for The Driver Brothers, sadly.
The Driver Brothers are one of those bands that would probably go down well at a CAMRA festival. An acoustic quartet with a bluegrass set-up, but a swamp-rock collection of songs executed in a pub-band style, TDB’s are as out of place here as a hog-roast at a bar-mitzvah and go through the motions with cold, joyless and indifferent haste.
Occasionally grooving to a raggedy fiddle and a juicy harmonica riff or two, TDB’s country-folk has a timeless quality to it’s construction but fails to make any impact because the material is so very fucking bog-standard and inconsequential. Pleasant enough for bearded wierdies with chunky jumpers and bad breath who’d probably have a lovely drunken evening enjoying them in a country pub, because their hillbilly-rock ‘n’ roll virtually has a straw in it’s gob and a penchant for bestiality, but for anybody else, The Driver Brothers seem pointless and more than a little bit depressing.
Don’t get me wrong, The Driver Brothers do play exceptionally well and their hooch-blues makes for a pleasant change, but there’s nothing original or passionate going on, not even a spark of real creativity. They just serve their spit ‘n’ sawdust offerings with an unceremonious lack of spunk, like a castrated Levellers (for want of a more accurate comparison), leaving the rapidly dwindling crowd in no doubt that their music is little more than soulless ambient noise filling the silence and a paid-for time slot because absolutely nobody appears interested. That might seem cruel to point out, because it’s tempting to make excuses such as ‘wrong band, wrong place, wrong time’, but when they eventually murder “Dark As The Dungeon” in a fit of impotent mediocrity, it somehow doesn’t seem unfair.
If you didn’t get out much and liked your music as stale bland and insipid as last night’s flat ale, then going to a Driver Brothers gig in a rural pub would probably be a real hoot. If you’d chosen to see them here tonight though, you’d probably go home wondering why on earth people bothered to experience live music at all.
It’s enough to make you shudder, really.