Hatfield and The North
Bowery Poetry Club
New York City
June 25, 2006
By Mark Bloch
I just had to take a minute to tell you all about an extraordinary thing that I witnessed last night. Hatfield and the North played around the corner from my house at the Bowery Poetry Club! Yes, as Richard Sinclair said at one point "This is the first time we've ever played in the United States-- not counting that gig we played a couple days ago in Bethlehem." Yes this was it for Hatfield- their first New York gig ever and for now their last. Only the "Bethlehem" gig preceded it. Turns out that was the 11th manifestation of the NEARfest, the North East Art Rock Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA.
Anyway, this was fantastic. Sinclair hinted they may return in the Fall. I urge you to get in touch with him and schedule a gig wherever you are. This should NOT have been the only US gig! The Bowery Poetry Club is a very small little place founded by Bob Holman, a friend and a local poetry legend. He has been very important in the creation of the Slam Poetry scene connected with the Nuyorican Cafe also in this neighborhood. A few years ago he decided to open a club across the street from CBGBs. It survives and does quite well with an eclectic line up of acts, several every night, mostly spoken word but also including other things. But this was a full fledged music concert. A few doors to the north is Bruce Gallanter's Downtown Music Gallery, an excellent record (um.... CD) store that sells progressive music and has been doing a booming biz in this area for a couple decades now. Bruce apparently was asked by Hatfield's manager, a guy named Leonardo, if he could find them a place to play in New York and he did at the Bowery Poetry Club on Manhattan's Lower East Side. And so last night at 8pm a rare Hatfield gig was scheduled and what a treat it was.
The queue that lined up outside the doors was like old Prog (for Progressive Rock) home week. Here were hundreds of bald and balding middle aged men with ever-expanding waistlines, a few with their kids, wives and girlfriends in tow (like me) but mostly in clusters of three and four who were re-living their college days when Hatfield first came on the scene in the early 70-s. I know this sounds pathetic but it had a bittersweet quality to it. I mean yes the 70s were marginalized rapidly but it is good to know that wonderful experimental and often intelligent spirit hasn't disappeared. Far from it. I have to admit that it was an amusing scene but this is not to denigrate at all the kindred spirits who had the good sense to come out for a gig like this on a muggy Sunday night. It just felt funny because this area has become such a hotbed of grooviness the last few years with all sort s of would-be hipsters and scenesters and hipporatti walking the streets. (If they only knew that hipness died several years ago when no one was looking. Or was it when everyone was looking- at the MTV music awards) Anyway, those tattooed youngsters looked at us funny as they walked by and wondered as I did, if they were thinking at all, where this crowd had been hiding the past 25 years.
Anyway the same could be said of the band but they proved no shortage of chops right away when they launched right into some familiar tunes from their two unforgettable albums, Hatfield and the North and Rotter's Club including their credo, Share It, which they did. Richard Sinclair was front and center on bass and vocals and had plenty to say but the most talkative member of the band was drummer Pip Pyle who voiced various wisecracks from the back of the stage in between songs. To his left was the amazing Phil Miller on guitar. For me this was the highlight because I had seen Pyle with Gong and other bands a few years back and Sinclair on several other occasions but seeing them all together with Miller on guitar off in the corner was a dream come true.
Miller's playing those familiar twisted series of single notes in a key all his own on his hollow body guitar was awesome. I don't know how to describe any of this to you... suffice to say it still sounded very good, perhaps better, all these years later. They played several songs from their two albums and as well as a couple of Matching Mole songs, Robert Wyatt's band that Miller was also an important part of. Hatfield played two sets. The second one contained God, the fantastic Wyatt lyric pleading with the creator to, among other things, send a daughter next time, someone we can relate to. Sinclair did a beautiful job on that ironic hymm. And not once but twice Sinclair sang Calyx, which Wyatt did on the first Hatfield album. Last night Sinclair sang it once in each set and both were magnificent. One of the highlights of the evening was Sinclair scat-singing ala Wyatt occasionally in his deep baritone. He jiggled his cheek for added effect intermittently and always liberally made use of various effects boxes for both his voice and his bass.
The most glaring person missing from this lineup was Dave Stewart who also bowed out of the band's 1990 reunion. This time he was replaced by keyboardist Alex Maguire, who apparently has played in various bands led by Pyle and the late Soft Machine saxophonist Elton Dean. Yes, sorry if you hadn't heard but they announced last night that Dean died in February when they played a moody homage written for him. This was very sad for me because I was going to see Elton Dean at this very club a couple years ago. I did, in fact, get a chance to say hi to him when he played there with Hugh Hopper that night. But that turned out to be the night of the big blackout that originated in my home town of Akron, Ohio. So Hopper and Dean did play accoustically that night in candlelight and on an upright bass Hopper scrounged up but I was not able to attend due to the blackout. That must have been one of his last gigs. A big loss.
Anyway so Alex Maguire was the last member of the foursome. He was not shy about playing the keyboard parts. At times he blasted the shit out of us. I preferred his quieter moments but it was all very good and in keeping with the spirit of the band. I didn't realize until I saw Hatfield live last night that one of the primary magical characteristics of this music is the twinkling electric piano sounds going on in the same register as Miller's quirky, carefully-picked guitar notes. Maguire accompanied them beautifully. Here they were recreating that sound that I never thought I would hear live, and the fact that it was being done by just 4 of them is astounding. But here it was to see. I was impressed and amazed.
They finished the night 2 hours later with my favorites Fitter Stoke Takes a Bath and Didn't Matter Anyway which were glorious and gorgeous. They then returned for an unnecessary encore, I was satisfied. What could they possibly play now? I thought. But they knocked me and the rest of the crowd out by playing a final Matching Mole song which I cannot identify but was certainly familiar with. (Was it Phil Miller's Part of the Dance?) It was one of those driving dramatic numbers from the first Matching Mole album I believe but I am not sure. All I know the audience and I were all enthralled and transported back to former days
The whole show was very familiar this way. I was getting chills listening to it. They played many old favorites of mine, some of which I am sorry to say I haven't heard since. It was a potent reminder how wonderful this music is and was. The ex-college clumpsters in the crowd were not disappointed. Who cares if the young and clueless techno music freaks outside had no inkling what this was all about? These geezers really rocked.
The ensemble moved back and forth all night, as the Hatfield albums once did, from those very British sweet little accessible ditties with Sinclair vocals, to driving, almost plodding, ravenous romps in 15/8 time, led by Pyle's drumming and brought alive by Millers precisely-placed linear sentences of unexpected guitar notes. He grimaced his way through the show and looked quite stoic on stage but when I spoke to him afterwards he was very sweet, giving and nice and a bit like a colorful animated character you'd find in a Dickens story with finger-less gloves.
I know this lacks certain important details but I had to let you all know what I could describe because I realize this was a singular experience and I was wishing you were all with me. This show was tailor-made for the likes of us die-hard fans. Oh yeah in addition to Halfway Between Haven and Earth, a standout, they did a song called What's Rattlin' which was a "cynical" Pip Pyle lyric, (so-described so by Miller afterwards who said he did not share that outlook) about fans like us who are always inquiring embarrassingly and endlessly "about Mike Ratledge." Both Miller and I agreed that it is not such a horrible thing to have loyal, enthusiastic fans some three decades after this music was first created. It is in fact, a beautiful thing and will forever remain so.
(Thanks to "Alankin" for the great photo--http://www.flickr.com/photos/alankin)