4 October 2016
The Man Whose Head Expanded. Not in a good Mark E Smith kind of way, though. Oh no. Sadly not. In a kids-back-at-school, viral-laboratory, I’d-like-to-just-lie-down-in-this-ditch kind of way. Taking the bus down to The Scala, I wonder how long it will be until my eyeballs just pop out due to the pressure from my sinuses. But, Freq reviewers are hopefully made of sterner stuff, and so in a bravura display of stiff upper head, I marshal myself off the 73 and into the venue.
And also straight into a borderline unpleasant confrontation with one of the over-eager security men, desperate as they are these days to relieve you of the dreaded “food and drink” (see reviews passim, ad nauseum). This time it’s the almost empty packet of chewing gum I have in my bag (I mean, let’s confiscate chewing gum! Hey kids, rock and roll!) On taking the packet out of my bag, though, in a fit of virally-induced pique, I take the two remaining pieces, shove them quickly in my mouth, chew like some amphetamine bovine, and then take the minty bolus out and say “Here, you want it then?” It was, in truth, a high risk move, as he could very reasonably have ejected me on the spot for being a big-mouthed wanker, but seeing him temporarily paralysed with indecision, I glide past to the ticket office, and am soon safely inside, more than aware that I pushed my luck a little.
And if it had all gone south, I would have missed All Them Witches. Which would have been very bad juju indeed. Sadly, my limited energy has meant a late arrival and thus no time to see the support act, The Great Machine, who were reportedly, er, great. Instead, I time my entrance to perfection, and in a puff of red backlit dry ice, on come Nashville’s finest, All Them WitchesAlready the veterans of several critically well-received long players, the four-piece outfit are back on UK soil after a hectic touring schedule, one which saw their Brussels show from early last March issued as the truly outstanding – though rather unimaginatively-titled – live album Live In Brussels. On their last trip to Blighty, also earlier this year, they played a mere stone’s throw away at the venerable Lexington; this time they’ve upgraded to the slightly more capacious Scala, and sold it out like a bastard.
It’s absolutely rammed in here and, interestingly, it’s an audience of very mixed age: young groovsters, grizzled greybeards, and all shapes and sizes in-between. Given the age stratification one often observes at gigs around town these days, that leads me to suspect that the band are doing something really right. Strangely, I’m sure I can even see Tintin’s old friend General Alcazar here (though that could, in truth, just be my delirium).Singer / bassist Charles Michael Parks (Junior) has said in interview that All Them Witches “…is really like having four guitars. I play bass like a guitar, Allen [Van Cleave] plays keys like a guitar, and Robby [Staebler] even plays drums like a guitar…” And boy, that ain’t just bragging. Ripping straight into opener “Dirt Preachers”, All Them Witches fair explode into life. And so does the mosh pit, the assembled revellers, unable to contain themselves for even an instant longer, morphing instantly into one large writhing, flailing mass. a guitar band has once again achieved total understanding of, and mastery over, dynamics and modulation. From huge Sabbath-like monoliths of riff, to delicate blues-y tones worthy of Ry Cooder, the material ebbs and flows between moods, sometimes turning on a sixpence (or probably, more accurately, a dime) so quickly that one has to jog to keep up. Yet it is never disorienting or jarring. Every phrase, every note, has both a purpose and its own correct place in the grander scheme of the song, and of the band’s music as a whole.
From desert stoner rock, to delicate Pink Floyd-like abstraction, to jazzy swing, All Them Witches really have all the chops. They also have an obsession with “Coyote Woman”, and their two extended pieces on the subject showcase such musical dexterity perfectly. I swear, too, that their tunes are helping me breathe more easily… (apologies to any younger readers for a retro menthol cold-sweet reference there).a style that is always considered, exact and exactly right.
Parks is a damned good bassist too, rumbling away at the bottom end, whilst still managing to sing beautifully, every word crystal clear and compelling. In the band’s quieter, more narrative passages, such as the first part of “The Marriage of Coyote Woman” (her again), his voice even has a touch of the Jim Morrisons about it. Mention need be made of Ben McLeod, too, who – not unusually for All Them Witches – plays the guitar like, well, a guitar. He ain’t no slouch neither, one minute a bluesman on a mission, the next Tony Iommi with a strop on.Given the strict curfew at 11pm, there’s only time for one encore, but the band’s extended, Apocalypse-inducing riff-o-rama makes a fine and appropriate full stop for the evening’s proceedings.
-Words: David Solomons-
-Pictures: Dave Pettit-