Preview Nov 6th | Review Dec 7th | Review Dec 7th
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Special thanks to Raymond Persaud for the scan
Special thanks to Raymond Persaud for the scan
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Doing their level best; Joseph Gallivan previews the Hammersmith Odeon gigs by Level 42
Despite an unfortunate association with gold lame shorts, jazz funkers - to wit Freez, Incognito or Beggar & Co - are a pretty serious lot. Level 42 are no exception. A flirtation with head-held microphones notwithstanding, they allow little to distract from their music, and, since their inception in 1980, have managed to stay ordinary despite their now immense following. From the early, largely instrumental work (presciently titled Level 42 (1981) and The Early Tapes (1982), they have drifted ever so gradually into the mainstream of pop.
So much so, that their recent greatest hits compilation (Level Best, of course, Polydor), is one long collection of familiar radio tunes that everyone must have tapped along to at some point: ''The Sun Goes Down'', ''Running in the Family'', ''Lessons in Love''. . .
It is unsurprising, then, that as their constituencey has gradually shifted away from the specialist clubs to the family car, their subject matter has come to rest on a few reliable themes: family dynamics, lovers' complaints, and guilty-sounding valedictions. The themes, after all, still have to come second to the music which, led by Mark King's finger-plucking bass guitar, thumps along in a reliable range of tempos.
Level 42 are to British funk what UB40 are to British reggae - their smoothness and good behaviour make them supremely audible, or unlistenable depending on one's taste. Consequently they'll be filling London's Hammersmith Odeon almost nightly over the next fortnight, when regulars King, Mike Lindup and Gary Husband will be joined onstage by such unsung experts as Allan Holdsworth (guitar), John Thirkell (trumpet), Gary Barnacle (sax) and vocalists Annie McCaig and Lyndon Connah. Since there is no support, their shows will begin at 8pm prompt.
Level 42 at The Hammersmith Odeon: December 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21 and 22.
Bass Camp: The first night of Level 42's Hammersmith Odeon residency
It has not been a good month for Essex Man. Pilloried as the worst creation of the Thatcher era, he could have been excused, now that his time was up, for spending Christmas sulking in his Ford Orion, comforted only by Luther Vandross on the in-car CD. But he is an indomitable beast, and was out in numbers for the first night of Level 42's ambitious residency at the Hammersmith Odeon. It is three years since the band played live in London, and the gaggles of young men who peopled the band's shows then have, during that time, metamorphosed into couples with mortgages. But there were still enough lads indulging in esoteric male bonding rites in the aisles (they call it dancing) to let you know who you were watching.
It was difficult to spot anything otherwise. Despite a lighting rig of some size and complexity, the band played most of the set behind an impenetrable pall of grey. This was broken only by seasonal fairy lights running up the fretboard of Mark King's bass. Like a totem, a religious icon, it glowed there, punching out the foundation of everything that is Level 42. If, when the band appeared at Wembley Arena, King's bass rattled the ribcage like a xylophone played by a pneumatic pounder, in the smaller hall it pinned you to the back of the stalls. But whatever sub-nuclear rumblings were disturbing the chest, the sound remained clear. You could hear every note the band played. And most of those were bass notes.
King is an astonishing player, his right thumb bandaged up to protect it from the fearful pounding he gives the thick steel strings. His own skill is matched by his team: a squad of session folk backed the regulars: Mike Lindup, tickling enough keyboard technology to frighten Rick Wakeman, and Gary Husband, invisible behind an assault course of drums. Yet, for musicians of Level 42's ability, it is a surprise to discover that song-writing is not one of their skills. Many of the numbers were no more than opportunities to explore virtuosity. Like an evening of improvised jazz, a piece would consist of some bass, a bit of brass, then a drum solo, then some keyboard, then perhaps a guitar lick, then some more bass. Melodies were rare, lyrics merely follow the rhythmic pattern set by King and his thumb. At the show's mid-point they were really putting bums on seats: even the most determined Essex Men were sitting down.
Things got considerably more cheerful when King abandoned his Derek Smalls experimentation phase and pumped out the familiar rhythm of the hits. ''Lessons in Love'', ''Running in the Family'', ''The Chinese Way'', were all immediately identified by the Men, who flung their arms around each another, shrieked out their war-cry (''Woe-oh, woe-oh'') and, at the end of each song, wolf-whistled extravagantly. ''You never used to be this polite,'' said a grinning King at the end. Essex Man grows middle-aged.
Level 42, Hammersmith Odeon
THE ten navigation-aiding dots on Mark King's fretboard were illuminated by red bulbs, which were pretty to look at but constituted a misleading visual pun. One's thoughts turned to red light districts without any prompting from the music on offer; jazz may have seedy associations, but as purloined by Level 42 the rhythms were strictly sanitary.
Still, King's cavalier treatment of the bass guitar being a sight worth beholding, it was hard to drag one's eyes away from this mini-lightshow. He addresses the instrument's fretboard and strings with the casual wristiness of an Afro-Caribbean percussionist, fuelling a suspicion that if, in any other band, he would have merely been one half of the rhythm section, in this band he is not quite sure which half that is. Is he bassist or bongoist? Either way, he possesses the music industry's most exorbitantly insured right thumb, and that puts him centre stage.
Having lasted ten years and ten albums, Level 42 placed an emphasis on endurance that was perhaps heavier than necessary. During some of the two-hour show's longueurs one had time to put a less than generous interpretation on the phrase ''all the hits and more''.
Into the ''and more'' category fell King's first-ever composition, which had juvenilia written all over it but, kicking off with a svelte trumpet solo, at least served the purpose of showing that King's allegiance to the jazz idiom has lasted all his musical life. Taken in tandem with the funky gurgling of his bass in a new song called ''Set Me Up'', it was an advertisement for the forces which characterise Level 42's multicultural brand of pop.
Topped off by the well-rounded vocal performance of King and keyboardist Mike Lindup, it all made for a satisfactory fusion. It is a bizarre fact, then, that the band's two leaders retain an allegiance to the whining guitar solos. Allan Holdsworth, the hired hand who played them, was brought in, as they say in other fields, to do a job. It was hardly his fault that against a rhythmic backdrop they sounded vulgarly out of context.
The hits, particularly ''Running in the Family'' and ''Heaven in my Hands'', always returned to rekindle the performance whenever the ''and more'' threatened to extinguish it, and the show ended, as it had begun, with a generous supply of them. As they used to say in the Conservative party, King is doubtless looking forward to ten more years.
(thanks to Bob C for providing these transcriptions)
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