Photographs and Review by John Bentley
Most people will know Arthur Brown for the single ‘Fire’, which has received thousands of plays since it came out in 1968. However, live you discover that there is an awful lot more to the veteran ‘God of Hellfire’.
First up tonight is a really nice surprise in the form of the support band, Moulettes. Theirs is a music that defies categorisation, although the terms ‘alt-folk’ or ‘prog-folk’ have apparently been suggested. It’s strange and interesting stuff, something like Kate Bush and Tom Waits meet Mumford and Sons. Their website suggests that quite a few musicians form the band, but tonight they are a three-piece, supplemented by Arthur Brown’s bass player. Not many bands are fronted by a seated cello player (Hannah Miller), with dreams of being Jimi Hendrix, and a bassoon and autoharp player (Ruth Skipper). Do check out their latest album ‘The Bear’s Revenge’, which has received many excellent reviews. There’s also a new album on the way, from which we get some songs tonight. They’re quite different from any other band you will see. One of the highlights from their set was a marvellous duet of the two female voices on the sparse but beautiful ‘Songbird’. True originals.
Arthur Brown and his band take the stage with masks and facepaint, as their organist plays a whimsical rendition of ‘Tea for Two’. This morphs into the more sinister ‘Nightmare’, a track from his famous psychedelic debut album ‘The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’. Like many of Brown’s tracks it has a heavy Hammond organ sound backing his wailing vocals from the fires of hell. Not surprisingly, Arthur’s set tonight features a number of songs from this album including, of course, ‘Fire’.
The masks come off after the first number, but the performance carries on insanely. With his face paint Brown appears half clown and half devil, which is probably intentional ambiguity. Although he is now 70, Arthur has fortunately not mellowed. Brown was a real pioneer of theatrical presentation in rock (more on the famous ‘fire helmet’ later) and subsequent artists like Peter Gabriel, Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson all owe a great debt to him. He is said to have been kicked off a tour with Jimi Hendrix because of his incendiary stage act.
Next there are more visions of hell with ‘Devil’s Grip’. But then we have a very different and gentler tune, his imaginative interpretation of Simon Dupree and the Big Sound’s flower power classic ‘Kites’. This begins with a splendid classical piano introduction, before Arthur sings the opening words “I will fly a yellow paper sun in the sky” (such a song could only have appeared in the ‘Summer of Love’, 1967). However, it’s a powerful and more soulful rendition than the dreamy original. During the song, dancer Angel makes her first appearance, gracefully gyrating in a Spanish outfit and with a fan, which seems fittingly appropriate to this airy song.
There’s another soulful interpretation to follow, this time of Screaming Jay Hawkins’s ‘I Put a Spell on You’. Then we get a song from a more recent album, ‘Voice of Love’. Until I heard this I hadn’t realised what a great voice Brown has. His vocal goes high then low and has a real richness to it. He sounds like Scott Walker, which is praise indeed! Band member Nina Gromniak adds some beautiful guitar to this. During ‘Love Like You’ drummer Sam Walker demonstrates an extraordinary talent for doing high-pitched Bee Gee’s style vocals. The band is clearly having fun, as well as Arthur. The weirdness control is then set to eleven for ‘Spontaneous Apple Creation’. Brown tells us that The News of the World described this as “daft and decadent”. Fittingly, Arthur Brown is still with us and The News of the World is not.
Brown now hears his mother’s voice saying “Arthur, one day you will be famous and play at the Robin2”. There are titters from the crowd. All part of the amusing Brown stream-of-consciousness banter and the recitations that we get throughout the evening. Then the set ends with ‘Fire’. Well, his mega-hit had to come at some point. His performance of the song is famous for the flaming helmet that he wore while singing it. The fire helmet has caused all sorts of problems over the years, with venues fearing that their premises will be incinerated. Maybe health and safety has finally caught up with Arthur, because disappointingly, there’s no fire helmet tonight. However, dancer, Angel, fills in nicely, wearing firebird golden wings and headdress, towing over Brown as he hollows the famous words, “I am the god of hellfire and I bring you – Fire!” It sounds pretty good, with the iconic organ parts rendered perfectly by the keyboard player.
Arthur comes back on for the encore, telling us it’s past his bedtime and he has several animals and many women waiting for him. However, obligingly we first get three more songs starting with a splendid version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Green Manalishi’, with guitarist Nina doing a brilliant Peter Green part on guitar. Arthur Brown has a great ability to adapt other people’s songs and make them his own. As I return home to no animals and just one woman, I reflect on an evening where I have discovered that there is a lot more to the talents of the legendary rock star than the classic ‘Fire’.
Setlist: Nightmare; All the Bells; Devil’s Grip; Kites; The Unknown; I Put a Spell On You; The Voice of Love; Love Like You; Spontaneous Apple Creation; Fire Poem; Fire. Encore: Green Manalishi; Love is a Spirit; I’ve Got Money.