Oblivion In Orbit: Brian Auger & Oblivion Express Play The Orbit Room, Toronto

TELL YA, MAN… it’s gettin wackier. The last gig I caught was on a Sunday nite… which I thought was a low traffic time to pull out a rock audience. But what’s a common Sunday when it’s now 8pm on a Good Friday and I’m traipsing thru the heart of Tranta’s Little Italy looking for a cheesy little jazz club called The Orbit Room.

This time my buddy Pipes hasn’t even bothered to show up and go home early; he’s just not shown. Silly man. Word on the street says there’s a funky train pulling in, and it ain’t the Hogwarts Express. Nope. It’s Brit B3 Brian Auger, and he’s bringing his band, the Oblivion Express, into Toronto for a two-nite stand. I’ve been alerted to this gig by my buddy Harald, from Kiel in north Germany, who wants me to tape it. Ain’t the internet wonderful? Harald has left me a surprise, tho… he hasn’t said that this version of Oblivion Express makes Mr Auger the mother of all nepotists, with son Karma percussing and daughter Savannah warbling. The only cheque that leaves the family goes to bass player Derek Franks. Maybe Brian will adopt him.

I finally find the doorway to the Orbit Room, and stumble up the stairs to check it out. It’s long and skinny, painted mostly black, and kitschfully festooned with xmas lights and those gawdawful 1950s table lamps. I’m unfashionably early because this joint, when squished full, holds just 110 people. But killing time won’t be so bad. Auger et al hit the stage for the first set at 9pm. It’s already 8:10pm, so I sidle up to the bar, order a rum and coke, and listen to the bartender as he paces back and forth, relating the for-him incredible story of how Auger happened to be playing here in the first place. It happened about a month ago, he said. Brian just called us up… said he’d heard of The Orbit and wanted to play. He paused and looked away dreamily as the beer he was pouring spilled over his hand. Shit! It was then I noticed that when people get a hand wet, but can’t shake it — he was still holding the full glass — they tend to shake the free hand, as if that ersatz motion will make the wet one drier. Oh yeah. I was in full journalism mode tonite.

After a couple rummies I decided to check out the seating. The Orbiteers had found a bunch of small, round tables and had jammed them around the front of what constituted the stage. The B3, sound system, drum kit and bass speakers pretty well took up all available space. It looked like the bass player could only get one foot on the stage, if that. Hmmm… a serious design flaw: in order to get to the can ya had to walk right around the front and around the side of the bass player. I choose a table on the other side of the room, right in front of the speaker system, and settled in. BA&OE arrived onstage at 9:15pm. There may have been 60 people in the audience. OK, I thought. This is what they mean by intimate. I was in the second row and Big Brian was caressing the keyboards not ten feet away.

Auger is a big bear of a guy. Dressed in his usual XXL polyester shirt, this one illustrated with cartoons of fat black kids and the words “Hip-Hop”, he bounds around and seems genuinely appreciative of having any audience at all. He introduces the band and away we go, launching into a spirited version of Eddie Harris’ classic, ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’.

Well, what can you really say about Brian Auger? He’s been playing this stuff since the 60s, and yes, he can still get that big B3 up to speed before you’ve left the station. He has an electric piano slung across the top of the Hammond, and his usual routine is to play left hand on the piano, right hand on the B3. Having a bassist means he doesn’t have to worry about foot pedals, and he doesn’t use the Leslie speaker… heck, he doesn’t even have one. The organ itself is old & ugly. At some point in time — maybe the 70s — it was painted a horrible sparkly silver. Vegas? Now it’s all gored and bruised from being constantly moved, and I noted with some interest that Auger’s been fiddling with the instrument: the original outputs have been replaced with huge jacks — no doubt linking all to some midi mixer.

His right hand work is a thing of blurry wonder, as he effortlessly knocks off ropes of long, sinewy runs while the left hand punches out an endless series of chords. What makes it all the more amazing is Brian’s ability to get all this music out of what are pudgy, stubby little sausage fingers.

Karma Auger was looking tres kewl in a conehead-style wool cap/hat, and yes, he can really play the drums. Jazz stuff. Lotsa action. Runs. Fills. Rimshots. He looks a helluva lot like his dad.

Savannah Grace Auger is a slutty little chanteuse, probably in her early 20s, and this night she was wearing tight jeans over longish tight legs and shortish tight ass, with a sort of diaphenous, silky top, that started around the neck with a Gibson-Girl choker, adorned with a large chunk of stage jewelry, that flowed down and attached around the waist with flowing cloth bands. Not exactly as illustrated. Ditto long cloth band for the belt. The shoulders and arms are bare. The hair is reddish, curly and medium-length. She resembles Brian, too, and it gives her a sort of manly Sheryl Crow look. And yes, she can sing, but she’s not a great singer. But then again, she’s filling in for her sister, Ali, who usually sings with the group, has her own CD out, and decided this time to stay in LA. (I got all that cool info from Brian’s fairly-thin website).

Most of the time she’s not singing as the band is chugging through its jazz chops, and during those moments Savannah slightly cocks her head, closes her eyes, lifts her arms to shoulder level, brings her hands in around her chin, and swivels her hips to the whump of her brother’s bass drum behind her. Auger’s stuff has always had a trancey, hypnotic edge to it, and gazing around at my fellow Oblivious Expressos, I noted with the marketer’s gimlet eye that damn near all of the grey haired males in the audience were studiously touring Savannah’s street map of seductive curves. Hey, maybe Brian ain’t so dumb after all.

During halftime I wandered back to the aforementioned can and upon egress I stumbled right into the bass player and Savannah, sitting on a big ledge and drinking water. So, what’s it like touring with your dad? I ask. It’s OK, she says, summing me up in a quick glance. Another freaking dirty old fanman, she must have sighed to herself. You remind me of Shana Morrison, I say. I’ve known Shana since I was two. She’s a great singer. I’m impressed. Turns out she’s not really into singing, really wants to act. She’s got a great California tan.

Of course I booted the show. I’m playing it right now. Even got to call it In Orbit. Ha. Brian still does the old Trinity version of Donovan’s classic ‘Season Of The Witch’, the marked syncopation of the song exaggerated to an almost Iron Butterfly length. Savannah sings this one very well, Jools Driscoll-style, flat and unemotional. I got a table right in front of the speakers (nice small ones), but I don’t think it mattered, as I was so close to all the action anyway. By this time I was slurping double rums tall, and by the time the second set came, I was fairly fried. OK, I was fried enough to forget to turn the damn microphone on, so I taped absolutely zilch of the second set, which was a pissoff, but it was pretty well in the same musical vein as the first set, with ‘Light My Fire’ being the not-as-great echo to ‘Season Of The Witch’. Oh well, at least the first set is great, and I still have 72 minutes of pretty well the entire Auger oeuvre, in terms of variations on style. I’m happy to report the sound is really, quite good, and there’s a lot of audience interaction, which is always amusing when it’s highly appreciative. Brian also likes to do funny little endearing raps between songs, and his best made fun of his age. He let on he started off so long ago his real name is Brittanicus Augerius, and he was rewarded with a granite record for outstanding sales. OK, it’s funnier because of Brian’s pausy, breathy, jerky way of telling stories, then nervously laughing at them himself. Savannah uses this moment to studiously roll her eyes in mock embarassment. Oh well, at least they’re all working.

One last observation, then I’m outta here. At halftime Brian trundled out from the back with a big cardboard box of cds. $20 Canadian and he signs ’em. What the hell, I thought. So I buy what looks like a homemade copy of his first album, Open, with Jools and The Trinity (Roger Sutton, bass; Gary Boyle, guitar; Clive Thacker, drums). He opens the case (no protective plastic), whips out the cover, signs big, with a felt pen, reassembles it and hands it over. He’s had practice at this, I think. When I get home and take the cover out of the jewel case so I can scan it, I note with some interest that the cover is a cheap colour photocopy of the original printed one. All aboard.

© Rick McGrathOjo, 18 April 2003

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