Live review

Pigfoot – Pigfoot Shuffle launch at The Vortex

Pigfoot – Pigfoot Shuffle launch
(The Vortex, 7 September 2019.
 Review by Richard Lee)

I’d just gone along as a punter, and to be honest, Adrian Pallant’s liner notes to the new album launched last weekend do it far more informed and concise justice than anything I can scrawl (see also Jon Turney’s excellent review for LJN), but an evening of such infectious music merits dissemination, so here’s a few personal notes.

Pigfoot in Birmingham at the beginning of the year (Photo © Brian Homer)

I hope it’s no surprise to regular readers of LJN that Chris Batchelor has been bringing his agile playing and massive sense of humour to audiences since Loose Tubes and now through Pigfoot, reworking the trad canon, and subsequently turning his attention to the wider music heritage. Like Richard Thompson’s equally canny Thousand Years of Popular Music project, Pigfoot mines the past for gems that gain from a buff-up and brush with the band’s terrifically assured jazz skills. Inevitably, because of Batchelor’s pedigree, their work is rich with English humour, gently avant-garde, strikingly fluent, but never brash. Somewhere, an innovative producer is going to commission them for one of those off-kilter TV film dramas that you’re never sure is a comedy or not. Hopefully in black and white.  

The evening, and the album are very much a greatest hits of recent gigs that have focused on opera, Bacharach, Motown, 1972 and Elvis, so kicking off with Heartbreak Hotel like a New Orleans trad marching band signalled how much fun was in store. We stayed in the ’50s – well, the 1750s – for a glorious township setting of Isis & Osiris from Mozart’s The Magic Flute coupled with Dove Sono from The Marriage of Figaro, recalling Abdullah Ibrahim’s African Marketplace period. Staying with opera, Richard Strauss Dance of the Seven Veils saw James Allsopp switch from bari to bass clarinet, beautifully complementing Liam Noble’s gently incisive work on piano and subtle use of electronics. Modernist, edging on free, it reminded me not only of the disturbing impact of Salome (still fresh in my memory from the ROH last year) but also that there’s an awful lot of different kinds of music out there that is ripe for investigation.

So, logically, a stroll through some of the finest popular music of the 20th century – the other songbook, if you will – followed. Bacharach’s Wives & Lovers (avoiding, as Chris put it, its “dodgy lyrics”) gave us Allsop and Noble fluidly double-timing. In the Ellington that followed, we heard the band at its magnificent best: Batchelor’s split notes sleazingly rasping, Allsopp somehow making the bari sound like a sopranino, and Liam “Octopus” Noble (as Batchelor has it) ever-inventively supplying additional bass lines amidst swirling electronica. Paul Clarvis‘ drumming takes no prisoners: it’s not “rock” drumming, but it inventively seems to hurl rocks out that magically form a solid road for the band to travel down – never more so than when they go into James Brown. Funkin’ fantastic!

A real tribute to Stevie Wonder came with Batchelor’s note-perfect replication of the harmonica solo on For Once In My Life, then further embellishing and slowing the tune triumphantly. The funk continues with Pusherman from Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Wonder’s Boogie on Reggae Woman, easing into genuine reggae. In between, another Bacharach – The Look of Love – was presented as a baroque ballad, deftly avoiding any mawkishness and really exemplifying the lovely interplay between the quartet.

Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog was wonderful, reminding me of the punk tones of Pete Wareham and Acoustic Ladyland. Batchelor and Allsopp were commandingly good, Noble prog-rocked for England on all possible keyboards and Clarvis gave Bonham a run for the money. Phenomenal. 

Having recently had a bit of a local dispute about what music my own workshop group “should” be doing, I am convinced that the focus for jazz really must shift and shouldn’t just be on the first half of the 20th century. Led Zepp’s riffs are as valid as anything by Hank Mobley. Couldn’t help but think of Ellington’s good and bad music at this point, but as ever, what we need are highly accomplished musicians to free up the way we think about the heritage – Pigfoot exemplify that.

Anyway, after Batchelor had thanked everyone (“Some of us were in Eb and some of us were in A”) they encored to Dolly Parton’s Stand By Your Man which would probably cause apoplexy among some traddies but left the Vortex crowd baying for more. Joyful stuff.

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