I’m getting to really love The Portland Arms as a venue. It’s just the right size to accommodate a band and an audience that’s still able to see the whites of the musician’s eyes even from the back of the hall without it feeling like you’re squashed into someone’s front room, and you generally get excellent sound too. After getting up close and personal with The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band and The Wave Pictures in recent months I went to see Sweet Baboo last night and it was every bit as great a gig as those that went before it.
Sweet Baboo is the stage name of Welsh singer-songwriter-guitarist Stephen Black, and he’s been releasing singles and albums containing charming romantic ballads and boppers for a few years now. He’s been playing live for ages too, though I think this is his first tour as a headliner rather than a support act, in promotion of recent album Ships and the EP Motorhome. On the evidence of this show he and his tastefully minimal band (just bass and drums) deserve their top-of-the-bill status for sure – despite arriving to the venue late due to traffic snarl-ups on a cold and miserable evening and thus failing to get a soundcheck and being forced to set up in front of a waiting crowd they deliver a beautifully rounded set of what sound like instant classics to me and have the good taste to keep it short (I think they were done within an hour) and leave the people wanting more.
I was in fact really taken aback by how much attack and focus the band had, and how skilfully they managed to vary the dynamics. On record, Baboo’s songs run the risk of sounding a bit winsome and lightweight to me, with his clever way with a mundane metaphor (“this is a song about the Cardiff University electric library”) sometimes standing out as much more interesting than the pleasantly strummed guitars that form the basis for most of the backing tracks. On stage however the band properly rocks and at times even convincingly wigs out – that impressive array of effects pedals is not just there for show – but this is never at the expense of the songs and their melodic and lyrical charms. Baboo turns out to be, like David Tattersall of The Wave Pictures, a really impressive guitarist, capable of lovely flamenco and country flourishes on the acoustic guitar he picks up for the “mellow” section of the set, while his band prove themselves to be positively supple, grooving where appropriate or dialing it down for the quiet numbers (incidentally, I’m very taken with that black Epiphone bass guitar, though I’m not sure I’ve got the funds or houseroom for it). Despite all this conspicuous flair, Baboo maintains a convivial if slightly reticent tone to his between-song chat, as if he can hardly believe that anyone would bother to come out and see him play, though the fact that the room isn’t quite packed is probably more down to the weather than to him.
Baboo rounds the evening off with a solo encore of Tom Waits Rip Off and then heads straight over to man the merch stall, in typically self-effacing style. It’s been a brilliant gig. In one of his songs he’s got the line “Daniel Johnston has got loads of great songs, and I’ve got six” – I think he’s seriously underestimating himself. Catch him while he’s still playing in rooms at the back of pubs.
Great fun was had last night watching Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel, two prolific outputters and interpreters of…I dunno…folk-psych-country-rock, possibly? The New York based Lewis seems to have a soft spot for Cambridge as he was only here last nine months ago (maybe he’s twigged that there’s a ready-made vaguely bohemian audience that’s receptive to his lovely faux-artless flights of whimsy) – this time he’s accompanied by the faintly legendary Stampfel, who may be seventy-five years old but has the enthusiasm and exuberance of a toddler who’s just come off a sherbet and lucozade binge. Fifty years ago Stampfel made his name as a member of underground groups The Fugs and The Holy Modal Rounders but he’s hardly resting on his laurels now, as the fearsome rate that he’s been releasing albums and getting involved in musical collaborations is testament to. Lewis is half his age but the partnership feels like a good and natural fit, with the two men taking turns to present the songs and talk to the audience – there’s a nice relaxed vibe about the evening that makes it feel more like an impromptu bar session than a formal show. The frontman are backed by Isabel Martin on bass, Heather Wagner on drums and Franic, on loan from the Wave Pictures, on mandolin, which blends in nicely with Lewis’s acoustic guitar and Stampfel’s banjo and violin.
Material-wise, this is about as eclectic a mix of stuff as anything I can remember seeing. There are some quirky folksongs (including a nice singalong extolling the virtues of eating roadkill), a fair sampling of things from Lewis’s and Stampfel’s back catalogues and loads of covers, some from sources you might expect (Daniel Johnston), some completely out of left-field (Hawkwind? The Fall? Goldfinger?!) Every now and then Lewis encourages Stampfel to recreate an advertising jingle from his youth and these paeans to detergents and petroleum jelly are lovingly rendered in three part harmony. Stampfel seems genuinely delighted to be here and relishes his daffy old man persona, coming off as some mutant hybrid of Albert Einstein and John Otway, and while he might have trouble keeping his banjo strap attached and occasionally forget which microphone he’s supposed to be using his vocals and playing are right on the money. The show’s long, but it’s plenty varied – Lewis, who has an alternative career going as a talented comic book artist, at one point stands on a chair and narrates a funny and surreally seamy story about video rentals while flipping through a book of illustrations he’s done for it, like he’s the teacher and we’re a primary school class. And the set isn’t completely given over to throwaways and funnies: towards the end Lewis sings What Would Pussy Riot Do, an impassioned piece about freedom and censorship. A really entertaining and unpredictable gig, and it was also nice to see the musicians mixing freely with the audience both before and after the set.
As cult singer-songwriters go Jeffrey Lewis would seem to be positioned firmly at the accessible end of my hallowed Sliding Scale of Rock’n’Roll Mystique and Preciousness, judging by his visibility and willingness to shoot the breeze with punters at last night’s show at The Junction. He’s there manning the merchandise stall (on which good ol’ fashioned vinyl albums were conspicuously featured) before the gig starts, he actively solicits requests from the crowd, and he’s on stage in full view for a good twenty minutes setting up equipment in the interval, a chore that normally falls to thankless and anonymous roadies. You can’t somehow imagine Van Morrison fiddling about with guitar leads and projectors in front of a paying audience.
But then a large part of Lewis’s appeal has always derived very much from his hands-on and do-it-yourself approach to his work, as witnessed by his charmingly lo-fi and rambly collections of acoustic guitar powered punk-folk confessionals and his colourful hand-drawn comics and cartoons. His material always sounds fresh because it sounds like he’s making it up as he’s going along, with surreal, naive and touching thoughts, and rhymes both obvious and delightfully contrived, forming in his head so rapidly that it’s like he has to trip them out in his nasal monotone at a hundred miles an hour lest they evaporate. This ethos extends to the on-stage dynamic between him and his backing band The Junkyard, which consists largely of good-natured and meandering sparring between Lewis and his brother Jack as to which song they’re going to play next and whether they can remember how it goes, but once they start playing it’s obvious that the artlessness is largely superficial – they’re actually a pretty tight outfit and the slightly spaced-out New York bohemian vibe is a cover for some surprisingly imaginative and varied settings for Lewis’s songs of awe and vulnerability. Jack’s bass playing is positively nimble in places and he and drummer Dave Beauchamp supply full-blooded backing vocals as required, with multi-instrumentalist guest Kristin Andreaassen filling out the sound on violin or tambourine or harmonica or dinky toy keyboard. Lewis even uses some effects pedals to get away from his trademark fast-picked arpeggios – some of his playing sounds downright heavy metal. The songs I knew (like How Can It Be and Don’t Let The Record Label Take You Out To Lunch) sounded great, and robustly catchy, and so did the many I didn’t. It’s amazing how many words you can cram into a song and still make it singalongable.
So far so good, but the real highpoints of the evening were the four occasions when Lewis turned his projector on and fired up Powerpoint on his MacBook for some audio-visual content, the visuals being largely his own drawings. First, we got a presentation to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, in which Lewis rhymed his way through the key flashpoints to a backdrop of geo-political cartoons illustrating events, and later the tale of a three-headed extraterrestrial visitor’s bewilderment at the concept of night, day and sleep. There was a splendid tribute to legendary songwriter Daniel Johnston in the form of a proposed title song to his upcoming video game Space Ducks, and best of all a ten minute lecture on the history of New York punk rock from 1950 to 1975, narrated in the form of limericks and punctuated by the band playing uncannily authentic sounding snippets from the catalogues of the likes of The Fugs, The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls and Patti Smith (and if you’re wondering if 1950’s not a little early for punk, that’s the date of Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music). This last section was worth the ticket price alone.
The group played for nearly two hours, although it didn’t feel anything like it, and eschewed an encore, though the audience would certainly have been up for one. A brilliant gig by a multi-talented and genuinely likeable guy. And I’ve got no idea how he remembers all those words.
P.S. Just remembered – they started the set with a cover of Peter Stampfel’s Hoodoo Bash, from the indispensable Have Moicy! So another gold star there.