Cutting to the chase, Derek Hussey – familiar on-stage long before his promotion to front-man – does very well, even though the band’s power remains in the words of sadly-departed Ian Dury and his excellent backing band.
The Blockheads were always so much more than mere back-up of course, with such talent in their ranks.
And while this is definitely a collective, Marty Feldman-like figure Norman Watt-Roy on bass looks right centre-stage alongside Derek the Draw, the technically-brilliant and all-round good egg nothing less than a diamond in the rough.
Also playing a stormer was Dave Lewis, one of the more recent ‘Heads on the block, and while Mickey Gallagher was hidden away behind the PA stack to my left, there was no doubting his keyboard contribution.
It was also good to see Johnny Turnbull his usual cheeky self on guitar, and grinning from ear to ear – as if he can’t quite get over the fact he’s with all these senior citizens of new wave – drummer John Roberts kept it all together.
You get the feeling from the start that it’s Derek under the microscope for those who haven’t seen the band lately.
I was among those, my last Blockheads gig being a memorable 1990 benefit for original drummer Charley Charles at Kentish Town’s Town & Country Club. Ten years later, Dury had also left us (13 years ago this very week), but now the band are back, still writing strong material and celebrating – at least on a low-key basis – 35 years on the road.
That’s always been an on-off existence, members drifting in and out over the years, with a wealth of other projects between fall-outs with a notoriously-difficult original frontman.
Did you realise, for example, Watt-Roy played that memorable bass-line on Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax, part of a session band suggesting it was more Holly Johnson and the Blockheads than as advertised.
I saw Watt-Roy one memorable night in the mid-80s with the Wilko Johnson Band, a three-piece delighting a bustling Kennington Cricketers crowd, not long after the Dr Feelgood co-founder had played his own part in a rich Blockheads history.
Needless to say, Norman dedicated a song to Wilko and his on-going battle with cancer, before the band launched into Sweet Gene Vincent, with Ian and Charlie also getting name-checks from Derek. But this is a band of survivors for sure, Norman remarking how they need the drugs ‘to stay alive’ these days, after Mickey’s mention of the 35th anniversary.
As for the songs, they delighted from the start with Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll and I Wanna Be Straight before Hussey-penned Staring Down The Barrel songs A Little Knowledge and George the Human Pigeon, the latter offering shades of Park Life alongside a Steely Dan band feel.
Back to the old days it was New Boots & Panties‘ If I Was With a Woman and Do It Yourself‘s Inbetweenies, although I’m not sure we needed to see Derek’s actions to go with the suggestive bits.
Then came 2009’s upbeat, inspirational Hold Tight, before an unmistakable piano intro greeted Wake Up and Make Love With Me, followed by the part-wistful part-rocking classic Sweet Gene Vincent.
The hits kept coming, the wondrous What a Waste including tailored line ‘I tried to play the fool in a seven-piece band’, while Preston sang happily along to the ever-sublime tale of Clever Trevor, amid much middle-age grooving all around.
It may take much longer to get up North the slow way, but on this evidence Derek doesn’t feel the need to prove himself, and certainly showed his worth on Prophet of Doom, a pensive environmental lyric echoing Lou Reed’s Last Great American Whale as much as Dury’s You’ll See Glimpses.
Then came the wonderfully-catchy Itinerant Child from Dury’s valued farewell Mr Love Pants, signalling a column gear change up for big finale Reasons To Be Cheerful Pt 3 – including a brief segue into Jack Shit George – then Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.
The latter ’78 classic – possibly the first song I knew every line to – included Dave Lewis’s considerable two-sax appeal, played at once of course, and a whole host of storming solos, not least Norman’s coup de grace bass.
There was still time for two more Dury/Jankel show-stoppers, the raucous self-titled Blockheads followed by under-stated finale Lullaby to Francies, providing a welcome ear-worm as we headed off all warm and fuzzy into the sub-zero Lancashire night.
Thank you Blockheads, it was a blast. You’ve given us much to savour these past four decades, and long may you groove on.
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