Live at New Roscoe on Monday, 19th July 2004
'Even Jesus Christ could use a little wine' Wrinkle Neck Mules: Big Dipper
Have you noticed the flyover approach to Sheepscar? One side of the road is populated with bright, spacey professional flats, where wide windows display leather sofas and smart young haircuts, the other side by the regular Little London Council Flats, available for a fraction of the rent. It's surprising how such a small physical divide can separate seemingly similar sites of cultural activity by such a huge amount of difference.
However it's on to the Popscod. The Durbervilles are almost regulars here, and are often seen supporting Americana acts; tonight they are opening up another night of alternative country music. A polite five piece from Batley ('Backstreet Hollywood') they continue to hold the torch for West Yorkshire alt/country/cajun bands (The Mekons, John Langford and that guy with three names who plays Carpe Diem with the glasses etc) with songs of drinking, love, bank robbing, rain and death, taken from their LPs 'Striving to be reasonable' and 'The Ballpark of Distraction'. (Well, as local heroine Kay Mellor said in a recent interview 'There's sex and there's death really...' a little thievery helps to break the monotony I guess).
Gus Taylor's accordion playing is superb, adding depth to the standard two guitars/bass/drums line-up. Guitarist David Crickmore (who runs the Grove's ever popular unplugged Leeds Night) switches between Lap Steel, Mandolin and the obligatory Telecaster. I've seen them before, enjoyed the show and I'd see them again. And enjoy that too. Which is reasonable enough surely?
From Richmond, Virginia, and currently zigzagging Britain (Newcastle to Inverness via Leeds anyone?) the Wrinkle Neck Mules are very much the real deal when it comes to smuggling in contemporary alt/country, as their current LP 'Minor Enough', from where much of tonight's material is gleamed, will testify. Stand-in Bassist Ken Simons has been with the band for a little less than a week, but you'd hardly notice as he and drummer Blake Gayle (on a stripped down three piece kit) hold the beats for twin Teles framing the alternating vocal leads of Andy Stepanian, (mostly acoustic) and Chase Heard, with harmonies from Mason Brent (Mandolinista!). CD Opener 'No Consolation' quickly warms the, rather exclusively populated, room and, as Chase's Bluegrass banjo jumps into the second song '17 Miles of Bourbon', the boys exclaim 'We're not from round here'.
I agree, without resorting to gross ideo-typical assumptions, with my colleague at the back of the room who states that, seemingly, American musicianship, and especially that present here tonight, is a good head and shoulders over that of UK comparisons. Discuss? Simple Kid will never match Beck, and Gomez (for example), for all their lo-fi pretension, are, here, similarly reduced to mere, mimetic, tributes to the middle-American muse they aspire to. Just because you're wearing the right hats don't mean it fits.
These players have learnt their craft well. Maybe it's the competition (or maybe that crap musicians just don't make this side of the Atlantic much). But, of course, it's also the nature of the style they adopt. Bluegrass may be as simply structured as any other form, but the scope for its execution is vast - with fast precise picking often (as on 'Discarded') gloriously syncopated out of time, as wonderfully musically dissonant as any 303 notch filter. The Harmonies are rich and soulful. Simple.
Anyone who followed the BBC2 Lost Highway series will have caught on the rich history of American Folk and Country Music, evolving from the diasporic cultures of European and African émigrés, peasants and slaves alike. The re-interpretation and evolution of Country has often been despite of, or directly as antithetical opposition to, its conservative powerbase. The UK has no such equivalent, as despite the laudable contemporary re-discovery of Bert Jansch and Davy Graham. Ewan McColl's collection of Scottish folk songs comes close, inspiring the Folk Punk movement of the eighties (The Pogues, The Men They Couldn't Hang, even The Levellers and The Proclaimers) but seemingly folk-rock has receded into the margins of Ceilidhs, barn-dances and Beth Orton records. Oh, and Dido of course. In comparison, the cross-over into cool pop/rock (by Mr Adams and even the Kings of Leon) of US Country music further exemplifies the rich vein to be mined beneath the sturdy foundations and damn sexiness of ever-so-slightly-scary American boys with note-bending Fender guitars... (That's Kay Mellor again, I'm thinking).
Regardless of theoretical debate, The Mules play fast, tight, expressively and above all modestly, with harmonies and instrument swapping and shared vocal duties radiating a rich vowelled, conversational warmth, the sharing of basic intimacies (come-downs and loss), stories of Mexican Snow and late night drinking ('Whiskey Jars') and a welcome feeling of camaraderie that avoids any connotations of 'Good ol' Boys' cheese. The pop sensibilities of 'Gold Dust Twin' and the rather beautiful title track 'Minor Enough' (an MP3 on their web-site) are augmented with breaks to introduce David 'If that ain't country you can kiss my ass' Allen Coe's 'Gone so Long'.
A deserved Encore of 'Dust of Saturday' and 'Put your guitar where your mouth is' rounds off the set; Seventeen Songs and an hour and a half after they took to the stage, The Mules pack up and come to the bar for a beer, singing the praises of last nights support band 'Ambrose Tomkins'.
Whilst tonight's audience was thin on the ground, you know damn well they'll raise the roof in Scotland. We wish them luck and touch our glasses together. Sláinte!