Review: The Hardchargers – Belfast Nashville Songwriters’ Festival
Thanks to Belfast Saturday night traffic, I managed to miss The Hardchargers’ opening number tonight, which I’m told was Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied”. While sorry to have missed that classic, in the next ninety odd minutes there was no shortage of great tunes to enjoy.
Having disbanded the original line-up last year, Lonesome Chris Todd now can be joined on any given night by a bassist and drummer drawn from a pool of six players. At this particular gig I was delighted that we’d drawn the two I’d hope we’d see; Ali MacKenzie and Davy Kennedy; formerly of The Bush Turkeys and The Mighty Mojos.
The Hardchargers are an authentically rootsy blues band with a totally original twist. Their take on Johnny Winter’s “Mean Town Blues” demonstrated just how original; adapted to befit Lonesome Chris’s sensibilities.
“Jojo”, is an original track from the new album Scarecrow, and it’s a sexy tune, a brilliantly sleazy song of lust. I think we got the slightly censored version tonight though; the album version. If my memory serves me correctly I am sure that in less polite company I once heard Chris growl, “Feels like heaven in between those thighs” rather than the sanitised, “when I see those thighs” – or did I imagine that? Either way, it’s a cracking tune.
Fitting for a festival with several hundred musicians dandering around, “Lonesome Thread” was inspired by the life of a musician on the road. Chris describes the experience of travelling around from gig to gig in a Transit van, desperate to be home, against a rhythm that’s redolent of a clickety-clack train. Perhaps my favourite track on the album, this song sounded fantastic live.
After a difficult time when the line-up change was necessitated, it’s easy to see now that Chris has got his mojo back – this line-up is really tight, which is incredible since they’ve played together only four or five times thus far. The last time I heard them was actually their first time playing live together. On that occasion they admitted, Davy and Ali had had to listen to the tracks on CD in the van on the way to the gig. That night they were shit hot – tonight they were slicker still.
In a preamble to “Little Too Late”, Chris explained that the song was written at a point in his life when he felt that it was really hard to grow and change, when he thought that might not be possible. Thankfully though he said, he feels a bit differently now. The intro to this tune is epic; light touches on the cymbals, a little bit psychedelic, a bit mystic, a bit “Doors-y”. In the lyrics we learn that he’s seen too much, lives too fast, thinks too much, dreams too big, but in the end copes a little better. I’m glad he feels more optimistic these days.
A few Scarecrow songs played back-to-back was a marathon of sexy slide, funky bass and rolling drums and the three musicians on stage seemed totally lost in the music. They really seem to vibe off each other; clearly, they don’t get this good without rehearsal, but the whole set has the feel of a jam session, Ali and Davy watching Chris for cues, smiles back and forth between them, music by feel.
For the die-hard slide guitar fans in the audience, “No Stone Unturned” was the tune of the night. The slide solo in this song is staggering; don’t ask me the technical terms, I’m not a musician, but when he plays slide right up to the body of the guitar, the crescendo sounds like a Boeing 747 taking off! From that to the lowest guttural notes – it’s really something else. I have heard that virtuosic solo a couple of times live now and still can’t fathom how anyone can get such an emotive sound from an inanimate instrument. At the risk of sounding really pretentious, I’ve never better understood Benedick’s words in Much Ado About Nothing when he said, “Is’t not strange that sheep’s guts could hail souls out of men’s bodies?” I think old William Shakespeare must’ve been a Lonesome Chris Todd fan.
Next was a call for people to loosen up, live a little, in the form of “Charger Swing”, a kind of blues do-si-do; I wanna tell you people, about that Charger Swing… makes you feel good”; which at the end, speeds up faster and faster ‘til it sounds like an out of control fairground ride. There are smiles all round, it’s a real blast of a track.
What Chris described as the only blues instrumental track he knows of written about a dog, came next. “Beaker’s Bowl” was inspired by a big, loping boxer dog – called Beaker of course. I hope he is appropriately appreciative of the honour of being immortalised in an eight or nine minute blues extravaganza.
To keep the schtick going between songs, often when Chris announces what’s coming next, Davy will still ask, “Which one is that again?” – just to keep Chris on his toes – and that’s exactly what he did before “Sometimes”. The lyrics state; “Sometimes I’m cold, sometimes I’m boiling hot…” and “sometimes I’m clean, sometimes I got that funky smell”. Remarkably, in this corporate conference room in a fairly swish hotel, these guys still managed to do a pretty decent job of recreating that funky, sweaty atmosphere more usually associated with a dingy blues bar.
As a bit of a departure for Hardcharger fans, Chris broke out the acoustic guitar and performed a new song, “Red Lion Yard”. Last year while awaiting the release of the Scarecrow album he’d agreed to tour around England for five or six months with another band. For one reason or another that didn’t work out, but he had spent a week or so sleeping in the back of a van somewhere in Dorset, parked up in a place called Red Lion Yard. It was a nice change of pace, still bluesy but perhaps a little gentler, and Chris told me afterwards that there is at least one other acoustic song on the horizon.
Before the final track, Chris gave a heartfelt thanks to Panarts and BelNash for allowing them to play the festival for the first time. After a heckler requested a Barry Manilow number, Chris said that they were in fact going to end with a 1950’s Link Wray instrumental track called “Rumble”, but with the added caveat that this was not a call to go out and start fighting in the streets.
A one track encore, and then sadly that’s all she wrote. It was a first-rate performance and it’s really almost impossible to believe that these guys haven’t been playing together for years, there’s such natural chemistry between them.
The joy of the Belfast Nashville Songwriters’ Festival is the incredible diversity of music they have there; it’s not just singer-songwriter types, you’ll find folk, country, trad, and in this case, downright dirty blues. If I could change anything it would be that the times of some of the big performances would be more staggered so there’d be no need to miss a favourite. But I am certainly glad I didn’t miss The Hardchargers tonight!