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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Shepherds Bush Empire, London, November 18th 2006
I’m standing in a queue that’s snaking round the side of the Shepherds Bush Empire, just like I did ten months ago at the Pickle Factory (actually it was much much colder that night) when I was waiting to see the Bonzo Dog Dooh Da Band perform a one-off 40th Anniversary concert. Shortly afterwards I reported there were rumours that the seven remaining Bonzos were thinking of touring – unwise as it seemed to me.
Could they ever recreate the nostalgic wonder of that “pinch me was I really there night”? How could they take such a gloriously chaotic shambles out onto the road? And how would a group of barking sixty-somethings (Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell is 73) endure the rigours of a rock and roll lifestyle? Well it’s night number twelve, the last of the tour, we’re upstairs on the first floor (standing in one of the best spots in the whole theatre) of a packed–out Bush (with a surprising and pleasingly mixed age profile, including a few celebrity comedians and a clutch of Blockheads) brimming with excitement, and we’re just about to find out.
Phil the Bonzos’ truck-driver is next to us manning a spotlight, which is what he does when he’s not doing the truck thing. Phil rates tours by trucks – he’s just been out with Razorlight (six trucks) and tomorrow (he hasn’t been home since early October) he’s off with Snow Patrol (eight trucks). After Christmas he’s got Kylie. He’s missing the after-show because he’s got to get the truck up to Bedford to unload. But he’s enjoyed the Bonzos (one truck) tour – “different every night”, “what a great bunch of old geezers”, “they even slept for four nights on the bus”, “I’ve never laughed so much in my life”, “you never quite know what’s going to happen next”. He’s right.

It’s an expanded band – at the core are the Bonzos - Neil Innes, Roger Ruskin Spear, Rodney Slater, “Legs” Larry Smith, Sam Spoons, Vernon Dudley Bohay Nowell and Bob Kerr. But there’s a four piece rhythm section (including Andy Roberts) and fronting on guitar and occasional vocals is former World Party bassist, session man to the stars and sometime Bootleg Beatle David Catlin-Birch. He takes on some of the Viv Stanshall crooning parts very well, like song number two, ‘By a waterfall’, where the Slater/Ruskin Spear/Kerr brass section also announce their intention to play – watched with great pleasure, by the rest of the band. There’s a lot of watching going on – you can see the faces of the whole band, taught with tension and the fear of impending doom every time Ruskin Spear takes on one of his gadgets (and he has trouser-press, Theremin leg, robots, electric torsos – the whole bloody lot except the famous wah-wah rabbits) melt into grins of delight when they all work. At the side of the stage (when they’re not performing) Adrian Edmondson and Phil Jupitus, who’ve been on the whole tour, have their eyes glued on the band. And there’s a lot of pleasure in their own performance – hysterical laughter as Bohay-Nowell camps up ‘Falling in love again’, and when Kerr and Sam Spoons perform the ventriloquist routine on ‘Little Sir Echo’ – “I was laughing so much I couldn’t hold the camera still’ said the Photographer. If you want to know what Jupitus thought about it then you can read his tour diary, all laughter, tears and more laughter.
At the Astoria the set was divided into the trad-jazz half and the rock and roll half. Here the songs are matched and mixed to much better effect. And Innes is relieved of the pressure of doing so many of the vocals (difficult for him as he has a fairly one dimensional voice) by Catlin-Birch, a far more prominent “Legs” Larry Smith (‘Jollity Farm’, ‘Monster Mash’) and Edmondson, who in addition to reprising his ‘I’m bored’ and ‘The strain’, and the brilliant ‘My pink half of the drainpipe’ introduced the second half with a full version of ‘We are normal’ and later dueted with Ruskin-Spear on a near-perfect ‘Trouser press’.

He also played trumpet on ‘Jazz delicious hot, disgusting cold’ – a wonderful ensemble piece. Jupitus played a lot more guitar (he’s following the trend set by the cognoscenti and has swapped his lovely Fender Telecaster for a Gretsch), bellowed his way with aplomb through ‘Mr Apollo’, ‘Tent’, ‘Rockaliser baby’ and ‘Canyons of your mind’ (in Elvis suit) and also ‘Big shot’. Paul Merton joined and had a bash at ‘Rhinocratic oaths’ but couldn’t match Stephen Fry’s Astoria performance, and Bill Bailey sang Keynsham while Sam Spoons juggled with boxes. Purist (Puritan?) Bonzo fans have apparently debated the rights and wrongs of the star performers taking part, but to be frank the Bonzos would not have managed without them – they not only helped make up for the missing Stanshall but gave the band an edge they would not easily have found themselves, and they didn’t hog the limelight. Not even Edmondson, dressed in the parrot suit, carefully reading the sign ‘Crowd surfing can be dangerous’ before launching himself out into the elderly mosh (“Hang on, I’m going to find a patch where there aren’t too many geriatrics, I don’t want them to drop me”).
And if the Astoria was really a ‘being there’ sort of moment, then this was a far more satisfactory comedic performance, a better balanced set. A more thoughtful range of songs (so we also got ‘What do you do’ and ‘Busted’ that were missing from the Astoria), and some excellent comedy moments, generally all very well timed. True there were a few fluffed words here or there, forgotten solos and bum notes but overall is was as much as anyone could have hoped for. And to see these seven elderly, and generally rather distinguished looking gentlemen perform ‘Music for a head ballet’ was a moment to be treasured. Well – they all were really. At the end of ‘Busted’ the band were ushered from the stage by some unlikely looking policemen, leaving an apparently forgotten Bohay-Nowell playing (bizarrely) ‘Silent night’ on his saw. Then all returned for multiple ovations, applause, cheering and not a few tears, after which Ruskin-Spear returned to an empty stage for one final, perfectly executed joke, and that was it. Beaming smiles all round. Phil the Bonzos’ truck-driver rushed off to pack his truck. We went home, and accompanied by some of Scotland’s finest midnight wine watched the rather disappointing video of the Astoria gig (twice as I recall). But hold on! There were cameras all over the Bush. A new DVD is in the offing – and if it’s ever released then go out and buy it. There might never be a next time, but on the other hand …- Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate and Nick's Nokia)

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