McALMONT & BUTLER London Union Chapel 01 May 2014
McAlmont & Butler, twelve years after their last album, sold out the Union Chapel (900 tickets) in 4 minutes. Well, isn't that something? After over a decade of near enough radio silence, bar one 7” single and a handful of acoustic appearances, M+B, who gloriously burned briefly in 1995 and 2002, make their first headline appearance since Tony Blair was in power and make the case, with no arrogance, that they are an act that took the best of everything from Isaac Hayes and Motown to The Smiths and
And my word. I'd never really appreciated how powerful this duo were, or are. One of the best guitarists in the world matched by one of the finest singers and frontmen I've ever seen offer a mercurial flash of genius, a glimpse of a future there never was who, in 30 songs crafted a unique and unforgettable set of songs that were often overlooked but were never just liked, but loved. The Union Chapel may be a huge stone obilesk of worship, replete with the only hydraulic powered Church Harmonium in the country, but inside, the delicate and precise acoustics and frankly gorgeous architecture is complimented by the music,, which sees McAlmont & Butler, accompanied by their long standing drummer, a Magic Number on bass, and a string/keyboard section, re-create the sound of a kind of alternate soul. Taking a cue from an equal love of Motown and Morrissey/Marr, McAlmont's soaring voice and presence takes Butler's songs ; huge, lush, but delicate things and makes them breathe.
And oh boy. McAlmont is born to sing. Some people just do that. The only other vocalist I've seen live with such a broad range and powerful reach is Mike Patton, the human throat. Patton may sound like an exquisite car crash : McAlmont is a classic soul singer (born into the wrong decade, bestowed on a world not ready for him), gifted songs by the talented Butler that his voice bends and shapes into all kinds of beautiful structures. In short, McAlmont is a staggeringly powerful singer and one who really should be headlining the O2 – or at the very least. A hidden talent picked out to do some mentoring on one of those crap TV Talent shows. His voice is honey dripped with the teeth of God, or something, were it a 1993 NME review. He struts and owns the stage, reaches out, and loses himself, as his partner in crime, the stoic Bernard Butler, does the same.
At this distance – I'm six feet from the stage when they play, and thus can see every expression and bead of sweat – this is not music for the wrong reasons. The tone of the guitar is precise, the play immaculate, unique. Sure, I knew how good Bernard was as a player, but I've not seen him play songs I recognise in 20 years (my fault, I admit), and the man is a guitarist that any vocalist should be thankful for the chance to work with. There's touches of the boy I first saw play live as a 22 year old in Suede – the angles of movement, the cherry red guitar with a precise bite and attack, the movement – and also the man he became. McAlmont too, resplendent in a bright blue suit and red crystal sash, is full of life and love. More than once, there's joking and impromptu laughing – especially as McAlmont forgets the opening verse to “Tonight”, and lots of lovely happy eye contact. This is not the look of a band rusty after a 12 year break, but the look of a band that could easily have been a contender. Opening with the lush Stax-”Can We Make It?” the answer is “Yes”. (And, of course, the opening song poses a question that is answered by the final one).
The audience is subdued, after all, this is a house of worship. Reminiscent of a certain kind of church, McAlmont urges us to stand, and within a verse, the whole place, albeit penned in by pews, is closer. The set is backloaded, so the opening hour or so are all deep cuts – album tracks, a smattering of b-sides, and even the great lost single – and obvious opener - “Theme” is missing. On the other hand, “Disappointment” - an 8 minute guitar wigout reminiscent of Butler's earlier band's most insane moments – soars and burns. And then, there's a short acoustic interlude, including an acoustic take upon “Speed”, the only song released from the abandoned 3rd album.
And what is most obvious to me is the sense of … loss. The songs here could have been the start of one of the most productive songwriting partnerships. In my mind at least, Butler has been working with asymmetric talents of lesser ability on occasion since 2002 – however, in the shape of superior support Nerina Pallot, – he may finally have a foil to equal McAlmont. The main set ends with obscurity “Zoom” (performed on a TV show in 2002), and “Falling”. By encore time, Butler fires up the harmonium, and McAlmont sings from the preachers pulpit. For a second, it reminds me that perhaps he is singing to Butler - “if you let go of me, you'll lose a good thing.”
Next song is “You Do.” This song slays me. Music comes up at a certain point in your life, and a song that may not mean anything to anyone but you becomes a lifeline. A superpower. This song was released the month my mother died of a heart attack at 52. This song suddenly became the conduit through which I was able to express certain things I could never really say. I want you to be the stronger one, I look up to you, I need you now, I always have. It's probably a perversion of the songs original meaning, which may very well be about a lover's collapse into self-destructive behaviours, but then, this song, which I listened to on near endless repeat at the time, is a hymn to losing a person loved very much to a disease. When everything drops out and I see a man singing the words that I clung to at half my age, this song is, of course, why music means so much. Emotion is no liability. I never thought I'd see this, and at the same time, I was dreading it – what will I do? How will I feel?
And someone squeezes my hand, and I know that even though we are alone inside bodies, we are never alone. And encore two sees an unfamiliar song “Goodbye”, where the band are joined by Butler's son Charlie Butler, and an unexpected offering of cake, and “Happy Birthday”. Bernard blows out his 44th birthday cake, and for the third time, impatiently stomps through the beginning of “Yes”, which is singlehandedly the greatest ever You've-dumped-me-and-I-am-much-better-now-I-don't-have-your-dead-weight anthem of liberation ever. The amount of girls and boys that have listened to this and thought of people they are better off without. Probably a lot. A few hundred at least on the basis of tonight.
Is this the beginning of a new life for McAlmont & Butler, or the end? Who knows? But this proves they are still a powerful force as good as they ever were.
Can We Make It? -
Whats The Excuse This Time? -
Different Strokes -
How About You? -
Don't Call It Soul -
Bring It Back -
Where Are You Now? -
You'll Lose A Good Thing -
You Do -
(Happy Birthday & Cake) -