Current iteration of the reprised and iconic founding fathers of alt. country, The Long Ryders, show no sign of surrender.
Sid Griffin seemed clearly delighted to be back in Brum, repeatedly hailing, and thanking, the audience as being his biggest yet in the city. Of course, as an emigrant to these shores of some several decades standing, he is no stranger, having toured before; setlist tell me the band first played Birmingham on the 14th October, in 1985, at the long departed Powerhouse. I didn’t catch that show, but have seen him solo a couple of times, once in tandem with Peter Case, as well as with his next/previous band, the Coalporters. Memorably, the time he was supporting Roger McGuinn at Ronnie Scotts, he regaled punters, as they left, with an impromptu busking slot on the street. So, a consummate performer and little has changed. The hair may be greyer but maintains much the same shaggy mop of previous. The recent big vagrant beard has been shorn, and if perhaps a little broader in the beam, certainly his energy levels seem undiminished.
But let’s not forget the rest of the band, two further originals present in Stephen McCarthy, also on guitar and vocals, and behatted drummer, a stetson, natch, Greg Sowders. Each solid and substantive players, McCarthy with his slightly more country flavours to complement the more Clash-y timbre of Griffin, and Sowers defiantly both thumpy and thematic. On bass, given the demise of Tom Stevems, two years ago, we had Murry Hammond, of Dallas stalwarts. the Old 97s, a band formed very much in the image of the Long Ryders, if getting on for a decade later (and who tour the UK next month, if not, as he thought out loud from the stage, Birmingham). His bass and bvs seemed as hewn in posterity as the rest of the band.
The venue, new to me, is in Brum’s hipster boho central, Digbeth, where the warehouses of long gone industry are bursting into a late fruition of bars and concert spaces. This is actually part of South Birmingham College, which have a sizeable footprint on the main drag, opposite the much loved Irish Centre, not that long go committed to rubble. By entering through a side door in a sidestreet, it feels a bit special, a corridor leading into what feels like a large school assembly hall, with high brick walls and a decent sized stage. A pop-up bar to the side, what more could the mature audience need, save access to the gents.
I missed most the support slot, the Autumn Saints, who were duly noted as worth another look. With another ex-pat, Britt Strickland, at the helm, giving a North Carolina vibe to the country-folk ambience offered, it was the harmonica and steel of Nick Bennett that gave the most added value. But it wasn’t long before the lights went back down, with Jack Nitsche’s The Lonely Surfer booming over the P.A. Barely a word said, and the twangy riff of Tell It To The Judge pealed out, all ass-kicking attitude, Griffin hollering out the lyric, between beat that smirks, interspersed with scowls and self-knowing grins. And so it continued, with a barrage of songs scattered from across their discography, a fair few from new album, September November, released barely six months ago.
Two distinct formats followed, the Griffin songs and the McCarthy songs, each a strong singer and guitarist. If the latter is the less showy, his are the fingers to watch, his soloing being of tight constructs, Griffin more in your face, not least as he made shapes, whether kicking a leg or taking a pose. Hammond seemed merely pleased to be there, but his was no making up the numbers, his bass an energetic whirl that applied much more than mere scaffolding.
Anticipation swelled as a Rickenbacker 12 string electric was brought out for Griffin, a third or so of the way in. Sadly, tuning and other issues plagued the song, Two Kinds Of Love, and it was discarded at the end of the song, perhaps why the projected Byrds cover, Hey Mr Spaceman, did not materialise. Instead, we got I Feel A Whole Lot Better, the harmony vocals hitting just the right spot. Following with I Had A Dream and they demonstrated the strong Byrdsy legacy that steeps through their style of music.
Heading energetically for the finale, it became apparent we hadn’t really had much (any?) let up, all the songs being belters. Gunslinger Man epitomised that feel, Sowders’ thwacks getting heavier by the minute, espousing the reality he’s been playing the song for nigh on forty years. Likewise the closer, Lights Of Downtown; close your eyes and I could be back at home, parents in bed, watching them play it on Whistle Test. A McCarthy vocal, the words maybe prescient, it seems he too has left his hometown and is resident now here in Blighty. (Possibly even just down the road, in Selly Oak, given the constant referencing made , by Griffin, to the suburb and to his bandmate.)
Tools down and off, but it never is with seasoned career veterans like this, not that the audience wasn’t up for a good cheer. When they came back, rather than dipping straight into the song most folk had been waiting patiently for all night, there was a neat tribute to Robbie Robertson, with a competent blast through the Shape I’m In, again reminding the importance of the legacy of The Band in defining the shape of the Long Ryder sound. With that cover rousing the crowd once more, it was, of course, time for the song, Waiting For Lewis And Clark, the song that, even if you only know one of theirs, will be it. And it was a celebration, the icing on the top of a first class cake, mature yet with sufficient spikiness to linger long on the palate. Long may they ryde!
Someone say Whistle Test? (And i’ll swear he was wearing the same braces tonight!!)