YOU CAN PICTURE the scene – it’s the same one that goes down on the first night of every major college tour; equipment trouble, late arrivals, nerves and general backstage chaos.
But down at Southampton University, when Ace kicked off their fourteen-date itinerary, those opening night blues were sung to a slightly different tune.
They may not choose to acknowledge it publicly but Ace are up against the wall, and this, their second tour of Britain, is going to be the crucial one.
Last time they were on the up, building a reputation on the strength of a classic single ‘How Long’ and one very respectable debut album. But there was no hit follow-up, and since the band’s return from the States a couple of months ago they haven’t exactly satisfied all of the critics.
Backstage in the communal dressing room, the atmosphere is uncanny and cold, with conversations at near-whisper level.
Graham Parker and the Rumour are enjoying an easy calm with five minutes to showtime. Gigs like this are nothing new to the Rumour, of course; individually they’ve all paid dues with bands like Ducks Deluxe and Brinsley Schwarz, but it’s a whole new ball game to Graham Parker, slumped in a chair, his head at 90 degrees to the rest of his body, staring at nothing.
Six months ago he was a floor singer in the small folk clubs of Camberley in Surrey, and since he came to London he’s yet to play before a crowd any bigger, or any more important, than the Hope and Anchor or the Newlands. With an album already in the can for April release on Vertigo, this tour is going to be the acid test.
Suddenly they’re on. No introduction, not even a name check, just a house full of Ace fans and Graham Parker, a tiny guy in huge mirror-lensed shades clutching an acoustic guitar. He seems to have about as much charisma as an all-night petrol pump attendant, and the five-man Rumour behind him look similarly downhome.
Straight into ‘Gonna Use It Now’, next the uptempo ‘Nothing’s Gonna Pull Us Apart’ and the emotional intensity of Parker’s songs begins to cut through, even if little else does. Like a can opener, veteran guitarist Brinsley Schwarz’s nostalgic licks tear into the third number ‘White Honey’ and the band begins to settle down, Martin Belmont and bassman Andrew Bodnar swinging together on the beat.
Graham Parker is On The Way.
The audience is solidly appreciative too, if not exactly ecstatic. The Rumour, fast maturing into one of the most versatile groups in Britain today, have yet to reach that stage where the joins vanish under a sheen of oiled silk, and the slight onstage confusion between numbers as instruments are swapped certainly dulls the music’s cutting edge. But when the swingtimed ‘Lady Doctor’, the moody ‘Gypsy Blood’ and tour-de-force rockers ‘The Raid’ and ‘Soul Shoes’ were finished, I found myself with a rare feeling of almost total satisfaction.
Parker’s songs are simple and precise, showing definite allegiance to the three-minute single and the golden years of the early Sixties. Off stage he’s a shy and unassuming person, but a man who puts everything he has into his music.
His attitude is uncompromising and direct to the point of naivety, and yet one can only respect the faith he has in his songs.
“When I hear them”, he told me on the day the final flourishes were added to the album tracks, “they don’t sound to me like they should be obscure and forgotten, and I want as many people to dig them as possible. I’m into Otis Redding and the Stones, but maybe most people don’t get the same buzz out of music that I do. I like to be moved. I like to hear a song and know someone’s hitting something that’s really vital.”
Parker’s songs need several airings before they really sink in. To the casual listener he sounds a little like Dylan, from the Al Kooper/Mike Bloomfield days, but the raw intensity of Neil Young, and suggestions of Nils Lofgren are also discernible in Parker’s voice, and as it is, the strength of his material and his tunes mark him apart from other mere stylists. Time alone will tell whether he has the talent and vision to build up from those kind of roots.
Ace had to be red hot after that, and they were. The crowd was behind them from the start and they deserved the applause, if only for their professionalism and fine sound.
But they played it safe all the same. The audience wanted the songs from their first album Five A Side, and Ace gave it to them tight and tastily, bass player Tex Comer and drummer Fran Byrne playing with a real fire they can only have picked up in the States. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Runaway’, ‘Why’, ’24 Hours’, and of course ‘How Long’ were polished and funky with lead guitarist Phil Harris particularly impressive.
But after a time those lazy rhythms and crisp high-hat chops spread a drowsy numbness over the soul, and I couldn’t help believing that Ace’s big break ‘How Long’ came too early for them, before the band had the experience and the depth of character to cope musically with the pressure of success.
Only now are they beginning to find some way out of the maze. The two slow ballads from the new album (Time For Another) – ‘Sail On My Brother’ and ‘This Is What You Find’ – mark the emergence of a very strong song-writing team, but until they include more variety in their sets Ace will continue to be a fine rocking band but not Big League contenders.
Mind you, Southampton University didn’t agree with me. They called them back for a long, and genuine encore. Afterwards, though Harris and organist Paul Carrack were plainly dissatisfied with the set, everybody was a lot more relaxed.
© Chas de Whalley, New Musical Express, 24 January 1976