Can’t find any video, so here’s a publicity photo.
Why this gig?
In the mid-70s and early 80s I was a big fan of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. I had three of their albums – The Roaring Silence, Watch and Angel Station – and I listened to them a lot. I’ve never seen them live (in fact I always assumed that they had split up years ago) so when I saw they were playing at the Jazz Cafe I thought it was worth a look.
How wrong I was.
Support was from New York singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson. For some reason, I took a dislike to her as soon as she came on stage. But that didn’t last long. Her songs had more than a touch of Suzanne Vega or Tori Amos about them and I quickly found myself warming to her. I’ll be looking out for her in the future.
The band take the stage to a huge cheer from the audience (about three hundred of us – probably every remaining Manfred Mann fan in London). They start with “Spirits in the Night”, a rather obscure single from 1975, and I immediately start to have my doubts. It’s the new lead singer, Robert Hart, who is the major problem. He just sounds nothing like Chris Thompson, who sang on most of the band’s best-known albums. Where Thompson is a subtle and interesting vocalist, Hart sounds like the stereotypical pub singer.
In fact, the singing is usually better when founding member Mick Rogers takes over on vocals. I say “usually” because one of the evening’s low points is a dreadful version of “Doo Wah Diddy” which is sung by Rogers.
Of course, not all of the blame can be laid at the feet of the singers. It’s clearly Manfred Mann’s band and I have to assume that he likes the way that these singers sound. He also shares in the blame because he insists on filling the middle of many of the songs with interminable keyboard solos which, let’s face it, all sound rather similar. On three or four occasions he appears from behind his keyboards and strides around the stage playing a keytar. This appals me, but most of the audience applaud it wildly – it’s clear they don’t get out much.
The first half of the set is largely obscure songs. For some reason, there’s a cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”. I’ve always liked the Earth Band’s version of Dylan’s “You Angel You” (a minor hit in 1979) but tonight’s performance is terrible. And then there’s “Martha’s Madman”, a bizarre, sprawling piece that I have completely forgotten since I last heard it about twenty-five years ago. Tonight it’s one of the highlights of the set – but that’s not a particularly difficult height to reach.
Then they start to bring out the big guns. “For You” (another Springsteen cover) and “Don’t Kill it Carol” are both disappointing. And then it’s the song that everyone wanted to hear – “Blinded by the Light”. It’s one of the best performances of the night – perhaps it’s too good a song to ruin. That’s followed by “Davy’s On the Road Again” which is also pretty good. We’re in danger of ending on a high note, but that’s quickly corrected when they play “Mighty Quinn” as an encore. Robert Hart appears to be trying to channel James Brown. It’s horrible and I’m very tempted to leave, but the room is too crowded and I’m stuck there until the bitter end.
I really wanted to enjoy this show, but it’s one of the most disappointing things I’ve seen for a long time. It was like I was watching a bad tribute band. I have, however, come out of the evening with a desire to listen to the original recordings.
The mainstream press very wisely gave this one a wide berth, but here’s a good review by Nik Bukharin.