At the Colchester Arts Centre: In Colchester, next to the roman walls of the town, stands this venue, once the church of St Mary-at-the-Walls. Built in 1206, the site has seen 23 protestant martyrs executed by burning during the reign of “Bloody” Mary I. It was used as a gun placement by the Royalist army in the English Civil War, which led to its destruction.
Whilst the original Norman tower remains, the tower incidentally, which was once thought to be the origin of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme story; the rest was rebuilt in red brick in 1713 with more added in 1872. In 1978, the church became redundant but the large space — once the building was stripped of its pews, organ and other clergy vestments — made it an ideal venue for concerts, shows and other events. Since 1980, it has been known simply as Colchester Arts Centre.
So, under the vaulted ceilings of the venue an audience of around 400 gathered to await one of the most popular gigs of the year. For the past 14 years The Blockheads have played the venue around Christmas and it is one of the band’s favourite gigs. Essex is home to several members and their older songs contained more than a few characters who also originate from there.
The Blockheads arrived on stage at around 8:50 — to huge bursts of applause and cheers, and this was before a note was played. Then the fun began. The audience were treated to over an hour and a half of songs. Some vintage, some new and some old. Popular numbers were introduced by vocalist Derek Hussey or bass player Norman Watt Roy and some were segued to fit back to back seamlessly. Some were familiar to most of the audience, whilst some were new to those who had not purchased their latest album Same Horse Different Jockey.
We were treated to stalwarts from New Boots and Panties — the album which launched their popularity back in the late 1970s — including songs like “Wake Up and Make Love With Me,” “Clevor Trever,” “Blockheads” and “Sweet Gene Vincent.” They flowed effortlessly from the tightly knit cohorts, comprising of several of the best musicians in their field you are likely to get ensembled on stage, even as they were mixed with newer songs such as “I Apologise,” “What’s the Deal Mama,?” “Boys Will Be Boys,” “Undercover” and their newest single “Express Yourself.” There were also loud and full-bodied renditions of “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick,” “What a Waste,” “Reasons To Be Cheerful” and “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll.”
Though they have played many of the songs perhaps a hundred times, the band brought a freshness to each one, delivering them like well-packaged gifts to the eager and enthusiastic audience. The Blockheads still manage to imbue these songs with vitality in spite of the four originals being together for the best part of 36 years.
Derek Hussey on vocals is rebellious, naughty and deliciously lascivious. He carries the spirit of the Blockheads with an almost ridiculous effortlessness, and has just a whiff of Ian Dury-esque manners about him — but not enough to be considered a replacement. Rather, Hussey works as a compliment to the included Dury songs, which is what he intended when he took on the role of front man. Norman Watt Roy on bass remains untouchable and is one of the best players around. He delivers heart thumping rhythms, backing and soloing when needed. He plays with such energy and moves around the stage such a lot that his suit is soon drenched with sweat.
Johnny Turnbull on lead guitar is supreme and has one of the sweetest voices, which he uses both for backing vocals and the occasional solo delivery. Chaz Jankle on guitar and keyboards fills the gaps with thoughtfully placed chords, riffs and solos and keeps everything in order whilst Mickey on keys is pure genius and his solos and consistent background playing made tunes fill full and complete. John Roberts on drums is confident, keeps the rhythm going and on occasion gave the audience a brief insight into his solo capacity whilst Terry Edwards on sax was on a roll that night, delivering several good solos but a particularly deft and wonderful solo during “Clevor Trever” – verging on free playing. He also played trumpet in a couple of numbers and proved his worth as a musician.
Each musician is individual and is involved in other projects; they have strong characters. But put them on stage and instead of competition you get a tight, well-oiled delivery but one that still retains the quirkiness and grit which is so much part of the band’s character. Surprisingly, they were better in Colchester than when I saw them over a year back in Ipswich.
It was Norman who introduced many of the numbers and he made a good compere. At the end of the gig, the band were not allowed to finish by the audience who knew an encore was coming, and re-appeared to deliver three final numbers before the audience finally let them go. Afterward, some of the band joined audience members in the bar to have a drink and sell merchandise. Chaz Jankel was in good spirits and commented that they like playing Colchester – they always sell out there and it is one of their favorite venues. Asked about travelling further afield, he said the band would like to go abroad a bit more and maybe play more festivals like Latitude perhaps but, at the same time, they have to get 10 members sorted with places to stay, travel, etc., and that makes it difficult.
I spoke to Terry and commented on his playing, especially the solo in “Clevor Trever,” as well as those on “Reasons,” “Hit Me” and other places. I said some of his playing verged on free form and was really amazing. He said he played the “Clevor Trever” part like that because that was the way “Davey” would have gone — referring to the man who used to play sax with the band until 1998, Davey Payne. He said it was originally Earl Bostic and later Davey who had got him into sax, as he had gone to see the band when he was a teenager. We talked about free form and it turns out Terry is very much that way inclined and joked that he is going to try to shoe horn a bit in here and there — a good move if he can play it like that, I reckon.
The atmosphere was uplifting, with people of all ages coming to see a band which have almost become a national treasure. After 36 years, you might expect a touch of glibness and over familiarity to have crept in but because they have such a wide repertoire and the musicians are of a caliber to take even the most familiar tune and add something different to it each time they play, the songs never become stale, dull or overplayed — though there are a few which fans might be disappointed not to hear like “Reasons,” “Hit Me” and “Blockheads.” It would have been good to hear some of the more obscure and least played numbers from past albums Mr Love Pants, DIY or Laughter but there would simply not be enough time — and the aim of their gig was to have fun, celebrate and enhance the spirit of the Christmas season.
The Blockheads certainly did that: Fans left smiling, feeling better for going and the whole gig had a sense of a group of musicians who know each other’s quirks and foibles well, who gel together onstage whether they are originals or later additions and, perhaps most importantly, really enjoy what they are doing and playing for their audience. The band have a couple of gigs before the Christmas and New Year Break and then in 2014 — they start all over again! Long may the Blockheads continue to bring laughter and excellent music to the venues of Britain.
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