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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

The Pigalle, London, November 28th 2006

We’re in the Pigalle. No – it’s not that lively part of lovely Paris, famed for its charming and accommodating ladies, but rather a new club in London’s Piccadilly. It’s bizarre. Apparently the interior design is based “on the supper clubs of the 1940s” – those must have been the ones where evacuees sat round eating powdered scrambled egg and truffle oil by candlelight as the V2 missiles flew overhead. And it’s taken someone five years to design it – much of which time, I can only assume, was spent underneath his desk searching for his pencil.

It’s a ghastly pastiche of I don’t know what, and with its green flock wallpaper and shiny candelabra light-fittings looks more like the Embassy Suites somewhere in Tottenham High Road than a sophisticated or elegant night-spot. And of course it is sophisticated – because it’s home to regular performances by the new wave of burlesque artistes, or strippers (as my mother also used to say), providing ironic titillation to the tittering classes of Hoxton and the like.

Brian's back
When it’s not hosting strip-shows it’s a music venue, but it has to be said a poorly configured one. There are tables for diners both on the ground floor and on the balcony. Music lovers who don’t want to take the hit for dinner are corralled at the back and to one side, with a pretty poor view. And the position of the stage means that almost everyone downstairs gets a view of the back of the godfather of Acid Jazz’s Japanese shirt, and not really much else. Did I mention it’s Brian Auger with his Oblivion Express? He’s here because his record company (the hard-up Sanctuary Records) are launching a ‘massive reissue campaign’ of his back catalogue, but like us I can’t help thinking he’s spending most of the night wondering what he’s doing in this place when he could be in the Jazz Café.
And he’s not the only one that’s puzzled. The hen party at the table opposite (“and this one’s for you girls” – was it ‘Brain damage’) are drinking champagne like it’s going out of style – blissfully unaware that it’s supposed to be a night of hushed jazz reverie. And the other bloke who’s pretty confused by the whole thing is the burly Russian oligarch, bursting out of his 1970s Sweeney suit who takes the solo table next to ours with a stellar view of the stage. As he takes his seat my Tiffany diamond encrusted Geiger counter, a sophisticated but must have de-rigueur London accessory of the moment, goes into overdrive. He’s already glowing – but that’s in anticipation of the strippers, who of course don’t show, so he angrily scoffs his bowl of caviar and stalks out, leaving a trail of heaven knows what, in his wake.
On stage Brian Auger is in a Hammond organ heaven. And because I know Serge is a bit of a Hammond fan, and a Brian fan, and he’s sitting next to me, I thought I’d do a bit of research (yes I know, when I took my PhD that word had a very different meaning, but now apparently it means five minutes’ scamming on Google, a pre-requisite of journalistic success). Did you know that the Hammond organ was invented by Laurens Hammond, famed for one of his other inventions, the automatic Bridge table – apparently, says the website, “in 1932 alone, a total of 14,000 of these tables were sold”. I couldn’t find any on E-bay, but did discover a few Hammond Maniacs who had them in their collection. It was supposed to keep people happy at home during the depression, which was the same idea behind the Hammond B3, an at-home church organ, with that unique pipe-organ sound synthesised by a complex system of tone wheel generators (see – cool research or what?I almost sound as though I know what I’m talking about). But somewhere it went badly wrong: Jimmy Smith, Charles Earland, James Taylor, Rick Wakeman, Rod Argent, Keith Emerson – hardly a church choir, and at the head of this bunch of keyboard maestros the leading exponent of the art form today, Mr Auger, famously known of course for his work with Rod Stewart and the late Long John Baldry in Steampacket, and his UK hit single ‘Wheels of fire’ performed with the captivating vocalist Julie Driscoll (now Julie Tippets). And since 1970 he’s been driving his Oblivion Express around the world playing a delicious, though not too demanding, blend of organ driven jazz blues.
We see a lot of his back. And of his incredible concentration and muscular control as he works his way through the set – playing a Hammond isn’t an easy job, but he makes it seem (almost) like child’s play. Helping him out is son Karma on drums, daughter Savannah Grace Auger on vocals and the excellent and apparently effortless long-fingered five-string bassist Doug Shreeve. But as they work their way through a set that includes ‘Straight ahead’, ‘Butterfly’ ‘Bumping into sunset’, ‘Don’t look away, look around’, John Coltrane’s ‘Naima’, ‘Brain damage’, ‘Compared to what’, and ‘Indian rope trick’ the clear focus of attention is Auger, alternating long solos between the Hammond and his ‘funky’ (and rather too) electronic keyboard.

Karma, Brian and Savannah Grace Auger
It’s fantastic – and because the venue is such a dump it’s an occasion to close your eyes and let the swirling waves of sound roll over you, again and again, like a tide in constant ebb and flow. And at least Mr Auger stands between each song, faces his audience, and chats to us nicely about his influences (Eddie Harris, Herbie Hancock and Wes Montgomery seemed to be high on the list), about some of the songs (the ‘Brain damage’ story was a cracker) and quite a lot about his family, who when they’re not on the road (which they seem to be for much of the year) live in sunny California.
It’s great fun. And the band, and Brian in particular, seem to really enjoy it, despite the inadequacies of the venue. His sisters and friends in the balcony love it; Serge is ecstatic and talks to Brian at the end of the show whilst Mrs Serge snoozes. The hen party have all staggered away, whilst the grumbling jazzers at the back are heading for the late bus to Pinner. And meanwhile, as the Photographer irradiates smiles, having not expected to encounter Oblivion in such a literal way, I’m checking the Geiger counter and carefully brushing down my jacket. Last time at the Pigalle I suspect. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate 'Driscoll')

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