“A-wop bop-a loo-mop, a-lop bam-boom!”
JD McPherson and his band are the epitome of 50s good-time rock ‘n’ roll; the pure essence of country-flavoured R&B bottled at source. This is the sound that revolutionized popular music in the 1950s, the catalyst that kick started it all; and for one night only Dingwalls in Camden played host to the boys from Oklahoma.
Situated next to Camden Lock, Dingwalls is a renowned venue often associated with the punk-rock-pub-rock scene in the 70s. With its low ceiling and compact stage, the acoustics are ideal for an evening of faithful rockabilly jiving. The room swarmed with an eclectic and expectant audience for a sold out gig. Intermingling with the average faceless punters were students in authentic 50s attire, middle-aged quiffed-up Teddyboys, denim’d-up rockers and an assortment of punks. In part the ‘average’ Camden crowd; in part the magnetic appeal of a sound that bridges all generations.
To warm whoops and applause the band casually strode on stage and JD announced: “We’re just kinda flying by the seat of our pants tonight…we don’t have a set list or anything…we’re just gonna go! If you wanna hear something just shout it out.” A jukebox gig – what could be more fitting? True to their word the call for ‘Scandalous’ was answered by a stomping crash of the familiar opening chords with the power of a freight train. Dingwalls was immediately filled by a wave of exhilarating sound – walking bass, rolling drums, panting sax, hammering piano and throat ripping Little Richard style vocal. The sound was tight, the band fully on form; it was (and is) clearly a labour of love.
The musicianship was exceptional. JD’s slick Chuck Berry licks during crowd pleasers such as ‘Fire Bug’ were perfectly partnered by Alex Hall’s tight rhythm and Jimmy Sutton’s wonderful stand-up bass. In fact Sutton’s bass solo intro to ‘Country Boy’, complete with intricate slapping, plucking and sliding, was a real highlight; a lesson in the art of stand-up bass.
The sheer eclecticism of the band was also astonishing. Their sound firmly routed in 50s R&B but not restricted to just Lindy-hop rockin’. Moments of chilled reflection such as in the 6/8 swing of ‘A Gentle Awakening’ – JD’s voice twisting into something akin to Sam Cooke – were countered by the hypnotic groove of ‘Stutterin’ Cindy’, an excellent cover of an old Charlie Feathers tune. Then there was the rattlesnake charm of ‘Signs & Signifiers’ which was countered by an unexpected choice in their cover of Ska Kings‘ ‘Oil In My Lamp‘.
Of course, the band’s real strength lies in mid-50s rock ‘n’ roll and for a five-piece unit (comprising keys, sax, stand-up bass, drums and McPherson’s guitar/vocals) their sound is BIG; shredding the room with life-affirming intensity. Their mutual love of music was worn on their sleeves, their interaction and passion inspiring and their energy and stage presence utterly thrilling.
Even though the album ‘Signs & Signifiers’ was only released in May, the audience knew the songs intimately. Of course the biggest cheer of night was reserved for ‘North Side Gal’, fast becoming their signature song, but was easily matched by the enthusiasm for their encore ‘Wolf Teeth’ with its catchy st-st-st-tut-uttered lyric.
If you can catch JD McPherson live then do; these guys are the true embodiment of 50s R&B.