St. Paul and the Broken Bones blends blues, jazz and rock
As I cycled home from last night’s concert through the warm July night, smells of honeysuckle wafting from the hedges, I was reminded delightfully what a rural town Cambridge can be.
Once a quiet market town, it has splurged in growth. Where only 40 years ago cattle shambled up the middle of Regent Street, the place is now pullulating with hip life. Yes, there has been a digital revolution in between and the ancient portals of Colleges, once shut to anyone but the aristocratic élite, have flung open their doors to ordinary people, but it’s still surprising how far Cambridge has come in the league tables of ‘musical must visit’. It’s now got to the stage where if you wait long enough an inspirational festival like Glastonbury will come to us here in the once-wilds of East Anglia.
It happened last night with the acclaimed band, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, unknowns before they set the mythic Glastonbury fest-goers alight with their intriguing blend of romantic rock nostalgia and hip-hop worthy sound blast.
The Cambridge Junction was the place where a discriminating audience awaited a band with a fully subtle version of the past and an unmistakable call to the future.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones (what can the name mean? Your reviewer failed to find out) command tight cognoscenti of blues fanatics. Everyone awaited this much heralded band from Alabama with some thoughtful anticipation A cool crowd thronged the floor, admirers and inquirers together – mostly men it has to be said -- but a few determined women featured among the scattered dancers as the music blasted into being.
It was worth the wait. They appeared in a flash of full rock panoply, lights flashing in response to the sound intensity. Here was a rock band, veterans of the stage but with a difference. The line up of musicians was intriguingly different from the usual. A keyboard player – check and two guitars with a seraphic base, but also a flute and clarinet player, a trumpeter and a very groovy trombonist – plus timpani of course, created a band with the guts and finesse to produce a full rich sound all evening long. The band, sponsored by the Otis Redding foundation, sounded just like ‘the man’ at times their singer has a voice to propel sound from the depth of a large pit and his vocals were as strong as an amplified Tom Jones.
Was there something strange about the line-up being white? The musical power was there and with your eyes shut, so was the soul. But was it altogether right to have a line up of suited chaps looking like a group of bank mangers rather than the loose limbed heritage -- driven lean figures of black tradition? Birmingham Alabama means so much in the musical and political world. Essentially it’s been the fulcrum of black protest and black resurgence. Can I be the only one who thought ‘What’s happened to Otis’ brothers in this mix?” I talked to one black guy who was a hyper-dedicated St.Paul fan, Alexander SpaceFace. He adores the group and credits them with helping him out of a distressing life into a fun steady job on the road in charge of merchandising. Other than that, they appeared an all-white outfit.
The band is highly charged with the past. Duke Ellington would have saluted their virtuosic skill on so many instruments – and there was a distinct channeling of the jazz form when each instrument took the stage in sequence as a solo act. The result was impressive and a great line up of the undisputed talent in St.Paul and the Broken Bones. Yet although the singer was superb, the material was for the most part too even, despite the odd departure for a ‘pure soul’ song. And it sounds desperately old fashioned but the words were so indistinct I for one could not really decipher any – such a contrast to the spine tingling clarity of Otis where every syllable is rolled around as part of the blues offering.
A fun night. Sometimes the Gospel collective got going so that the audience were almost compelled to sway and rock along. This is the kind of intriguing musical offering coming to Cambridge’s Junction these days, long may they roll in to raise the roof on this funky and fabulous venue.