mon 04/07/2022

The Men They Couldn't Hang, Powerhaus Camden review - raucous farewell to the fallen | reviews, news & interviews

The Men They Couldn't Hang, Powerhaus Camden review - raucous farewell to the fallen

The Men They Couldn't Hang, Powerhaus Camden review - raucous farewell to the fallen

Cowpunk vets go back on tour, one man down after the death of joint frontman Stefan Cush

Men at work: from left: Paul Simmonds, Phil Odgers, Tom Spencer, Ricky McGuireKate Clark

To clarify: this is less a review, more a dispatch from a raucous wake. We all have a band that means something extra. Mine is The Men They Couldn't Hang, who I saw on Saturday night at the Powerhaus in Camden for the umpteenth time.

I first came across the band when I was commissioned to go to Reykjavik with them in March 1989. They had been going for five years, were on the rise, their third album Waiting for Bonaparte was out, and they were warming up for a big tour. Beer had just been legalised in Iceland for the first time since the 1930s and I may well have ingratiated myself by buying a round at an eyewatering £4 a pint.

While they made a lot of noise, The Men's sound offered an intriguing mix of sweet and salty flavours. Chief songwriter Paul Simmonds was The Men’s resident lyric poet, soulfully powered by a well-read social conscience. Meanwhile, on vocals, this was a double-fronted band. Phil Odgers aka "Swill" sang in a lovely loamy baritone while the lanky Stefan "Cush" Cush had a voice like a sack of brass tacks. They were brilliant, playing songs in a hybrid genre of acoustic-electric folk rock that someone, probably a clever person at the NME, branded cowpunk. It took the inner-city anger of The Clash and rooted it into a deeper English history of pre-industrial agitation, with violin, squeeze box and Simmonds's skirling mandolin thrown in to add an ancient patina.

Sadly things didn’t quite work out the way they should have – I once bumped into Cush busking in the (long gone) Hammersmith Broadway underpass – and they decided to split. I went to their break-up gig in the early 1990s. Cush moved to Llandeilo, away from their adoptive home of Shepherd’s Bush and that seemed to be that. Except somehow the centripetal force of the band was too strong and they eventually reassembled, initially to perform live and, without a record company to back them, eventually to crowdfund a new album. In 2014 I reviewed their 30th anniversary gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire for theartsdesk and found them wonderfully unchanged.

Then, earlier this year, Cush died at the age of 60. Very sadly I imagined with other fans that, with such a vital limb removed, this really would spell the end of The Men. But they had committed to tour once Covid restrictions eased, and decided to fulfil their obligations.

Hyper-cautiously double-masked, and socially distanced at the very back, I stood and peered at the band through the gaps and watched them holler, rant and croon through their unique collection of contemporary shanties and protest anthems. They didn't play every single one of their most evocative anthems. "The Colours", "Ghosts of Cable Street", "Ironmasters", "Smugglers", "Island in the Rain" were all present and very correct. But Cush was so associated with "Rosettes", the testosterone-powered portrait of English football ultras on tour, that it may well have been laid to rest. The same may go for the propulsive "The Crest."

Instead there was "Red Kite Rising", Simmonds' eloquent memorial to Cush, delivered as a growling duet with Odgers. Like many of the best Men songs, it is an intoxicating blend of melody and menace. Meanwhile Tom Spencer, deputising, sang "Salutations", Cush's homage to his Llandeilo local from their most recent album Cock-a-Hoop. Those are very big shoes to fill but he gamely threw himself into it.

Earlier in the set, Odgers started on "The Green Fields of France", the fiery ballad about a Celtic Tommy who dies in battle in 1916. Pretty much the only song in The Men’s repertoire they didn’t compose themselves, it always used to come at the end of the gig. It fell to Cush to render it in his inimitable voice that, with some help from booze and fags, felt ideally fitted to capture all the rage and pity of war. Instead, the fans took it on here and turned it into their own lament for the fallen. Below is a video of Cush singing it back in the day.

So, an uplifting tribute and a passionate party, which ended on a high with Cush's two sons leaping up onstage to take part in "Walkin' Talkin'" from their debut album Night of a Thousand Candles. Simmonds has long had a second career as a scholar-sidekick to his partner Naomi Bedford, who hauntingly sings hoary country standards and her own more recently minted torchsongs. And Phil Odgers’s solo career continues with Ghosts of Rock n Roll, a fine new album out this year. But I do hope this isn’t the latest end of The Men They Couldn’t Hang.

Below: 'The Green Fields of France'

Cowpunk took the inner-city anger of The Clash and rooted it into a deeper English history of pre-industrial agitation

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Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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