Live review: Hugh Cornwell, Tremont Music Hall (12/4/2013)

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Hugh Cornwell
Tremont Music Hall
Dec. 4, 2013

HughCornwell.jpg

"This is the first time any of us have played in Charlotte," former Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell told the Tremont Music Hall audience on Wednesday night. Noting that ace drummer Darius "One Take" Minwalla was from up the road in Salisbury, Cornwell added that the veteran Posies and Jim Carroll stick man was a local lad. Pausing for a beat, Cornwell delivered the punchline: "But he got out!"

For a moment, it seemed that the snarling vocalist and steely guitarist of old remained, when a frequently unsociable Cornwell led Britain darkest, most aggressive - yet also most literate and melodic - punk band from the class of '77. But then Cornwell cracked a smile with a self deprecating shake of his head. "I'm just joking."

Earlier in the evening, the man dubbed "U.K. Punk's Dark Lord" by Rolling Stone, had trouped onstage and plugged in with little fanfare. True to form, the trio, including bassist Steve Fishman, were clad all in black. Yet Fishman's shirt sported a cute Felix the Cat logo, and instead of his leathers and trench coat from the late '70s, Cornwell was comfortably attired in tailored slacks and collared sports shirt. Managing to be both terse and friendly, Cornwell said, "We're going to do a mix of songs from the new LP, Totem and Taboo, and from the Stranglers. So let's get on with it."

That's exactly what Cornwell's power trio did, launching into the jack-hammer beat and growling oily bass of Totem's title cut. With his cherry red guitar, Cornwell kicked out crunchy power chords and one of his signature sinewy and coiling leads. With barely a breath, Cornwell's crack crew kicked into the reggae lope and guttural elastic bass of Stranglers' nugget "Nice 'N Sleazy," highlighted by the singer's leathery menacing growl.

The propulsive-yet-lyrical set see-sawed smoothly between hard-assed New Wave chestnuts and Cornwell's newer Brit Pop flavored material. "You may have noticed that we're alternating each old song with a new one," Cornwell cracked. "We're doing that to confuse you." Yet there was never any doubt that the enthusiastic audience was completely in synch with the band, and my punk rocker's dark heart gladdened at the sight of Antiseen's Jeff Clayton swaying to the band's swinging rendition of aggro-oldie "Hangin' Around," which spotlighted Cornwell spitting out the motor-mouthed verses.

"Something Better Change" was the mantra of one of the Stranglers' old hits, and indeed something (besides onstage wardrobe) had changed for Cornwell in the intervening decades. With the exception of the ascending hymn-like choruses of "Duchess," Cornwell could no longer hit the high notes on airier bits of the Stranglers' canon like "Always the Sun," indeed he didn't even try, yet his voice remained powerful and lyrical, and his focused energy nothing less than a force of nature.

Bassist Fishman, a veteran of sessions and tours with Paul McCartney, Elton John and funk-noise No Waver James White, nailed the elastic snap of the Stranglers' roiling, sub-woofer bass. Drummer Minwalla married stomping mechanized trance to unhinged Keith Moon fills. Indeed, Cornwell's power trio recalled vintage Who as much as the Stranglers, with Fishman's rumbling runs echoing the late great John Entwistle.

On record, Cornwell's new songs rock with a diamond hard metallic sheen. Live, the Totem material kept that hardcore edge, but the rhythm section injected tuneful gems like the Kinks-on-steroids "Stuck in Daily Mail Land" with a fluid and jazzy swing.

Perhaps it's because he came from the punk era, when instrumental virtuosity was reviled, but Cornwell has never gotten his due as a kick-ass guitarist. Wednesday night, his bluesy blistering runs on the Cream-quoting "God is a Woman", the decaying echo of his cyclical psych whirlpools on the bossa beat "Always the Sun," and the spidery abruptly shifting licks on "A Street Called Carroll" were compelling proof that Cornwell may well be the finest fret-man to emerge from the punk era.

Though some of the Stranglers material missed the grimy Doors-styled keyboards that oozed through the original versions, Cornwell's stinging, oily guitar and the rhythm section's pummeling yet liquid mix of punk, funk and jazz more than made up for the loss. The most radical re-arrangement of the evening was reserved for the Stranglers' biggest hit, "Golden Brown." In the hands of this supple trio, the gauzy sepia-toned waltz was transformed into a jazzy, trancey time-slip, suggesting a hypnotic and rumbling cousin to Dave Brubeck's "Take Five."

Only the slightest whiff of nostalgia hung in the air as Cornwell and crew buttoned the set with the one-two punch encore of re-energized and re-purposed punk oldies "(Get a) Grip (on Yourself)" and "No More Heroes." Never mind the Pistols, "Grip" is the true punk anthem, defiantly and hopefully detailing the perils of playing music for a living, that is even more true today than it was in the days of "Anarchy in the U.K." It was the perfect capstone to a surging, energized set, a duet that twinned the transformed and re-invigorated old with the muscular and melodic new.


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