December 1995 – live reviews – Gordon Haskell @ The Unplugged Club, Bloomsbury, London, 7th December (“one mockingly rolled eye peering out to capture the madness and to look out for an escape route”)

9 Dec

Not even a minute into the show, and we hear it. He looks thoughtfully out at the mixed crowd and speaks. “I can usually tell whether an audience is going to be good or bad.” A pause. “Good night!” And then he lets it rip. That laugh – an untrammelled, hiccupping whoop of unbalanced joy, teetering on the edge of losing it. You may have heard in on King Crimson‘s ‘Lizard’, twitched into hysteria by studio electronics, a lone human voice in the sick, surreal circus. Twenty-five years on, in this intimate little acoustic club, it sounds like the redemptive, rueful peal of a free man, acknowledging the potholes of disaster that dog our footsteps in this world and cause some of us to drop into madness.

Strange to think that this grizzled and animated figure, eyes twinkling benevolently beneath a battered hat that’s the last word in Bohemian chic, is Gordon Haskell – singer with King Crimson for nine studio-bound months back in 1970. At an age where most ex-proggies are still squeezing themselves into the glad-rags and going through ever-more lifeless motions in small theatres, Haskell is donning comfortable clothes, picking up his acoustic guitar, playing tiny little places anywhere and enjoying himself. To tell the truth, the Crimson connection is misleading. All of that was a long time ago now. Gordon’s profile may have been lower than a bug’s belly since then, but now he’s swinging back into action with a vengeance… and he’s in better artistic shape than most of his more financially successful contemporaries.

Not only does he possess a brilliantly gutsy guitar style and a voice so rich and earthy that you could grow potatoes on it. but he has a bagful of excellent songs to offer. He now writes and plays like a combination of John Martyn and Leon Redbone, with a huge measure of the rawer joys of John Lee Hooker and Richard Thompson. He takes the vibrancy and gleeful survivor’s power of deep blues and blends it with an irreverent, eccentric, classically English strain of absurdism. Like the young Peter Gabriel, he takes his stand against the hostility of the world with a disarming, cunning humour, one mockingly rolled eye peering out to capture the madness and to look out for an escape route. It’s all as warm as a closely-held candle on a winter’s night… and as liable to suddenly scorch your fingers.

Thinking back to ‘Lizard’, one wonders what kind of more lively, organic record would have emerged had Robert Fripp and Peter Sinfield given Gordon a crack at the songwriting rather than just dovetailing his voice into their meisterwerk. There’s a vague hint of Sinfield’s verbal adventurousness in Haskell’s songs, although thankfully none of the attendant pretensions. The Hooker-like Wang Bang World captures life’s grim tendency to overrun us, but revels in a tumble of savagery and joking; conversely, Pelican Pie could be just a blur of absurdist imagery were it not for the beady-eyed thread of social critique running through it.

Haskell’s between-song banter may be a mixture of oddball wisdom and Eddie Izzard goofiness (“may you be blessed with many goats!”) but the humour in the songs is by no means pointless, pretentious silliness. Rather, Haskell’s a knowing jester holding his own and laughing in the face of life’s terrifying chaos. Hanging By a Thread (dedicated, tonight, to Fred West) is a mordantly hilarious parade of murderous, fatalistic comedy: “Gentle Jim got life for chopping up his wife / – said he needed warmth for the winter.”

The lack of preciousness is what really makes him great, though – he’s not out to prove to us what a clever musician he is. Sure, each song has enough teeth and gold to make us think about it, but it’s Gordon’s sheeer verve and ecstatic gutsiness that wins the audience over, captured in the luxuriant salaciousness of Chilli Chilli, the throbbing jungly blues of Test-Drive or the voodoo swamp-stomp of Alligator Man, a roaring clapalong portrait of the ruthless predatory wheeler-dealer, the sheepskin-coated hoodlum-salesman who’s becoming a spectre of the times.

Like those old bluesmen, Haskell knows how life and death, humour and horror walk side-by-side and share the same streets, and his work is not short of tenderness as well as carnality. The love song All My Life rasps like Louis Armstrong, and I Don’t Remember It Like This shows an Ian Anderson verve as it examines the misleading, misframed photos in the history of love: “whatever love is, it’s in the thrill of your kiss / and I don’t remember it like this.” There’s a real feel to the soulful sorrow of Tortured Heart and in the wry shrug of Mail Order Love, which mixes an organic bluesy swing with a handful of dissatisfied plastic metaphors, romance gone synthetic. The philosophical break-up song Go Tell Sarah is part goodbye, part lie, part promise.

In a dash of sheer music-hall, he tips his hat and beams at us with real pleasure, inviting us in to share both the fear and the laughter on his perspective on life. The return of Gordon Haskell is going to offer the scene a welcome dose of warmth, and 1996 could well be his year. A lost star is returning to dispense a special kind of mischievous twinkle.

Gordon Haskell online:
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