Roger vs The Man, Gang of Brothers & Bobbie Lee Stamper review (Blue Beat, Sydney)

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An eclectic line-up played last night beginning with neofolk singer-songwriter, Bobbie Lee Stamper. His accent distantly betrays North American origins and I’d be surprised if Bob Dylan and, especially, Paul Simon didn’t number among his influences.
Stamper was playing music from the age of nine and was informed by his grandfather’s introducing him to bluegrass and gospel; influences which can certainly be discerned in Simon’s music.
Stamper’s humility is at odds with his success, which may not be so well-known here but will be well-known to many North Americans thanks to his tours with singer-songwriter and pianist Jon McLaughlin; firstly as a guitarist and latterly, as a support.
Favours were returned when Jon joined Bobbie Lee on stage last night, also as a guitarist and backing vocalist. McLaughlin has also produced his debut album, Sea and the Heartbreak. Songs like Heartbreak hark back to early 60s folk, of the kind that’s so informed the modern tradition. I’m thinking Woody and Arlo. The variable sound clarity at Blue Beat’s somewhat obscured the husky nuance of Stamper’s heartfelt vocals (not to mention his finessed guitar, from which he coaxes a warm, ensconcing tonality) and the subtlety of McLaughlin’s harmonies. “Stick with me, babe, and we’ll be alright”, he implores in the half-spoken a cappella intro to the song and, on the strength of his short but engrossing set, I take it as good advice.
I’ve waxed lyrically about the shipshape musicianship and deft songwriting talent of Gang of Brothers before and reiterate that the band might just be the best and brightest ‘heavy soul’ group on the planet today. They’re all brothers, except for drummer and singer Buddy Siolo, who’s a musical blood-brother anyway.
Their debut single remains emblematic of their sound and it’s the song they chose to open their set. Get Up On Ya Feet (& Testify) might speak of gospel roots and they might’ve been down a brother on the night, but even as a four-piece they have the impact of an octet. Guitarist Andro’s raunchy strumming and Siolo’s flams on crispy-skinned snare open the bidding, with Fenix soon entering the fray with swells of organ and big bro’ Dauno launching into his blistering, “busy as a one-legged-man in an arse-kicking contest” bass routine; although there’s really nothing routine about it. As far as the style of the song goes, think Lenny Kravitz meets jazz-crossover and whether your thing is jazz-rock, blues, soul, funk, or something somewhere in-between, you’re more than likely to find what you’re craving.
The headline was one I’ve been trying to see for a while: the inscrutably-named Roger vs The Man. One presumes they see themselves as some kind of freedom-figting, caped, or uncaped, crusaders. My early associations were Jethro Tull and Frank Zappa; the latter turned out to be apt, as leader Roger Lock afterwards confessed Zappa as his hero. Lock (whose brother Anton, also a member of TaikOz, drums and raps) has one of those radiating, good vibes presences on stage that deludes one into thinking the world is really peaceful and love is all around. That can’t be a bad thing. He’s an accomplished acoustic guitarist who’s put players of equal stature around him. On the night, besides Anton, these included Joe Littlefield on soprano sax, Murilo Tanouye on electric guitar, Trent Prees on acoustic and electric bass and Joshua Hill (fresh from playing marimba in The Lion King pit orchestra), on vibes and percussion.
Meet Your Maker has the kind of epic quality one quickly becomes accustomed to. It’s one of those tunes that has familiarity about it: it’s as if it’s embedded, deep in the collective conscious; even if we know we’ve never heard it previously. Though you might well have, as it was a finalist in the Australian Independent Music Awards.
Distinguished by an intro on vibes RVTM have something of a classical gravitas about their sound. This puts them in the realm of Emerson Lake and Palmer and early ELO, too. On their debut album, there’s a chorus of heavy brass, but bass alone suffices to anchor the piece, which also affords room for a mellifluous soprano solo that put me in mind of Sting’s jazz-inflected forays.
There’s a portentous feeling about the song, bolstered by the lyric, which warns “the time has come; you know, ’cause they’ve brought guns; I swear it was not me”. Sounds like a hapless tourist anticipating a high-frequency tasering. It’s intriguing, substantial and pregnant with stylistic diversity, including a Midnight Oily percussive explosion, a Play That Funky Music-like bass riff and a pointed rap. Lock’s vocals go from breathy to rasping, like a tenor, as if to accompany the soprano. It’s an indelible tune.
Songs with names like Holy Money tend to confirm the band’s left-leaning political stance, while Black Pearl (parts One & Two) is the titular song cycle  from their well-packaged debut disc. It opens with some classically-influenced acoustic guitar, before bursting into afrobeat. It’s a mighty sound, sounding as if it’s risen “from the bottom of the seabed”. So much for the first part. The second is more subdued and ballad-like; a shared secret.
We Three Kings boasts yet another sophisticated arrangement and seemed the right song, given the reason for the season. I particularly warmed to the toasty acoustic bass, wah-wah and bluesy licks.
Salute To The Sun (which features another of Anton’s insistent raps) isn’t on the album, but Homecoming is and it took the set and the rest of us home. This song is more in the rich vein tapped by the likes of Xavier Rudd. “If I had my choice, then I would spend my time in your garden” has to be one of the most touching and vivid expressions of respect and abiding love I’ve encountered. It makes for a fittingly anthemic denouement, in an Eddie Vedder kind of way.
All of these artists are well worth your investment; each, vastly different from the last, but each and every one rewarding with near-peerless musicianship and songwriting craft.
[box]Roger vs The Man, Gang of Brothers and Bobbie Lee Stamper played Blue Beat on 14 December. [/box]

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