Sitting in a near-empty theatre at the Arts Centre evokes more the feeling that you’re attending a fresher’s introductory talk on using library resources than going to a rock concert.
The unusual setting becomes even more pronounced when East London (#represent) quartet True Beauty crash onto the stage in a hurricane of funky grooves, hip-hop breaks and expletives – “Feels like I’m about to give a fucking lecture” front man Joe concisely summarises. With what few audience members in attendance sitting in total darkness the group seem to treat the gig as a jokey rehearsal session, all banter and funny dancing. But it also lends a sense of intimacy to the music, an impressively original sonic snarl that indiscriminately borrows from brake-beats, psych rock and jazz. The two stars of the show are undoubtedly Joe’s strummer-esque cockney vocals and the saxophonist’s stratospheric horn lines and solos on tracks ‘Back Slashing’ and ‘Panama Hands’. They leave the stage having undoubtedly earned themselves a few new fans and the tacit agreement that this is a space to watch.
Matthew E White and his Spacebomb ensemble, saunter on stage with beards, Jesus hair and uniform beige suits like an alternative monochrome casting of Reservoir Dogs
In contrast the night’s main attraction, Matthew E White and his Spacebomb ensemble, saunter on stage with beards, Jesus hair and uniform beige suits like an alternative monochrome casting of Reservoir Dogs. This must be the cool, understated confidence an artist develops after appearing from out of no where to release two critically acclaimed albums in the last 3 years, a fact reflected in how the theatre is now almost full. The set opens with a highlight from their latest LP Bad Blood, ‘Tranquility’, a slow, spacey homage to Phillip Seymour Hoffman. White expertly controls the soft husk of his voice like a whisper from an old friend, using it to magnetise our attention to his lyrics over the expansive accompaniment.
Moving through to the group’s more trademark style of sunny, laid back rock/soul on tracks such as ‘Love is Deep’, ‘Circle ‘Round the Sun’ and ‘Rock and Roll is Cold’, the vocals are occasionally allowed to break free, exposing a more soulful wail. This is music that wears its influences on its sleeves; Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Bowie, Beach Boys and the Beatles can all be heard in the mellow vibrations. Refreshingly however, it doesn’t attempt to render these into something fresh or ‘original’ which, for artists trying to nostalgically reinvent the past, so often results in a contrived dirge. Rather the markedly relaxed song writing at its best successfully consolidates the wide-ranging influences of 60s/70’s soul and rock without being too self-conscious to indulge in the simple optimism of a “la la la” refrain during ‘Feeling Good is Good Enough’.
‘Rock and Roll is Cold’ analyses the trend of white-sanitisation of black music genres in an increasingly commercial music industry
This is not to say that White’s lyrical compositions don’t broach both introspective reflection or shy from engaging in sharp observations on the country whose music it’s so rooted in. “Two locomotives in the shade of crushed ice/ We found a place for two/ And we’re running things me and you” he lulls over the cosmic ‘Fruit Tree’, whilst ‘Holy Moly’ is a quietly enraged reaction to the child-abuse scandals of the American Catholic church (“Holy moly, what’s wrong with ya?”). Equally, the deprecating ‘Rock and Roll is Cold’ analyses the trend of white-sanitisation of black music genres in an increasingly commercial music industry: “You said you found the soul of rock and roll/ Hey hey, rock and roll it don’t have no soul/ Everybody knows that / Everyone knows… You said you found the trick to gospel licks/Hey hey, gospel licks they don’t have no tricks/Everybody gets that gospel licks are gifts”.
As far as showmanship is concerned, White and the Spacebomb band’s approach matches their music; they take a spontaneous break from the set to host an impromptu election over whether Warwick or Kenilworth castle is more worth visiting during their short stay. The audience are also treated to anecdotal behind the scenes insight into the various blunders that come with touring, beer spilling and jack un-plugging included. Closing with new single ‘Cool Out’ which features White’s accomplice and co-signee Natalie Prass whose acclaimed debut White also produced, one realises the theatre’s atmosphere has been quietly transformed from academic dullness into a chilled slice of warm Americana.