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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
KULA SHAKER with Dr Joel and Companeros

Shepherds Bush Empire
February 8th 2008

I was sure I had a Kula Shaker CD somewhere, but try as I might I couldn’t lay my hands on it before this gig. Maybe it went down to the charity shop in November, along with a bag of other ill-considered purchases.

Or it could be an old cassette, bought in an absent minded moment from a motorway service station bargain bin, and now confined to that rather oily bag of stuff in the back of the car, never played since VWs started coming with CD players only? Either way I know I did quite like that Indian tune they did which at the time (it was 1996, and I can’t remember if the song was ‘Tattva’ or ‘Govinda’) was strikingly different from anything else around, and pleasingly retrospective in a retrospective sort of way.
Hayley Mills
And I confess I was also somewhat seduced by the fact that band leader Crispian Mills was the son of British child acting prodigy Hayley Mills, whom I have to admit I had a bit of a crush on after seeing films like Whistle Down the Wind, In Search of the Castaways, and That Darn’ Cat (all seen in that old and now long-gone cinema in sunny Bedworth, the name of which now escapes me), and even more so after I (and the rest of the world) got a glimpse, a few years later, of her bottom in The Family Way. So it’s hot flushes all round when we take our seats in the front of the balcony (we’ve arrived early for once) only to see Hayley holding court to family and friends in the reserved seats just to our left.
Back to business. You may wonder why Kula Shaker earned the tag “the most reviled band of the 1990s” which still hangs over them like an albatross. Well, partly it was Mills’ showbiz family connections (Dad was film director Roy Boulting, grandpa actor Sir John Mills) and privileged public school background – not unusual (think the original Genesis for example), but often a cause for backbiting in the British music scene. More important, however, was Mills’ defining rock star foot-in-mouth moment, when, based on his interest in things Indian and spiritual, he foolishly declared his love for the swastika (“I'd love to have great big flaming swastikas onstage just for the fuck of it”), and bemoaned the fact that “it's a shame the baddies always get the good uniforms. Ha ha” when discussing Hitler and the Nazi movement. No amount of apologies could ever wipe that off the record. So, although their first album had been a great success rivalling the likes of Oasis for sales, the delayed second (not released ‘till 1999) was a flop, and shortly after its release the band split up. But they’re back with a new album, Strangefolk, released last year – and in a strangely Spinal Tap way, it’s partly because they’re big in Japan (Mills had been working there in the interim with his band Jeevas) where they toured in January before returning to Europe. And if tonight’s sold out show is anything to go by they’re big here too, with a audience ranging from mid-teens (the two charming and wildly polite girls next to us are even wearing kaftans – “not as smelly as they used to be” observed the Photographer) to, well, let’s not go there shall we? And if it’s sedate in the first floor balcony it’s rocking in the mosh downstairs (and upstairs above us) – I haven’t seen so many glasses of beer flying through the air for a very long time.
Dr Joel
It started to go wrong right from the start with a film introduction projected onto two rather church-hall style screens: it’s a cartoon of George Orwell, who introduced the support act, acclaimed “konnakol” vocalist and percussionist Dr Joel. I have to say that I would have found thirty minutes or so of drum and mouth quite entertaining, but unfortunately Dr Joel was sacrificed in the cause of what I think was supposed to be humour, as he was joined on stage by the Companeros, a weakly disguised Kula Shaker and friends, allegedly from Italy but looking like a cross between extras from The Magnificent Seven and the Beatles meet the Maharishi. It is apparently a huge joke – “sending themselves up” as we say here - as they play their way through some folky stuff, country and western and end up with an Indian chant. But it’s heavy handed, self-indulgent and as dull as ditchwater to any but the uninitiated few. If you don’t believe me then have a look on YouTube.
Kula Shaker
What follows is a fifteen-minute comedy as the road crew try and set up the two screens for the main show. It’s not quite like Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge moment but it is as surprisingly amateur as you can imagine. Eventually with projectors failing one screen is dumped and the band play in front of something that wouldn’t have been out of place in a 1970s school classroom. Very classy. Mills came onto the stage with his floppy blonde hair, a dodgy pair of knee-high boots and an ill-chosen black silk top. And when he announced the first song, “This is called Kick out the Motherfucking Jams, motherfuckers” I began to realise that we probably should have spent the night at home nursing cups of Ovaltine by the wireless, listening to Any Questions. This was a serious time warp of a gig, with nothing original to commend it (even that nice Indian stuff, when we got to it, sounded like old hat). Middle of the road rock thrash at its worst – and how could anyone take a band seriously with a organist like Harry B Broadbent (don’t get me wrong – he does pretty well with his Procul Harum style Hammond) looking frankly like the keyboard player Spinal Tap never had, as if he’d walked onto the stage from a dressing-room in 1974 or thereabouts. The new songs are hugely derivative – ‘Second sight’ is a dead ringer for early Yes, ‘Hurricane season’ out of the Mike Scott songbook. Worse, their longstanding cover version of Joe South’s‘Hush’, with which they thankfully begin to draw the evening to an end, is almost note for note Deep Purple’s version – you can do a YouTube comparison if you don’t believe me. Mills whirls around stage with a misplaced enthusiasm and self-belief to an irritating degree, ‘though I have to give him credit for coping with what must have been a painful cut finger early in the set – maybe we can blame some of the otherwise absurdly theatrical grimaces on that
We left as the encores began, starting with the apparently politically incisive ‘Diktator of the free world’ (I was going to quote the lyrics but why bother when they’re so crass?). We made our excuses to the girls (their Mum was waiting for them outside in the Volvo XC70) and had a minicab ride home that was more exciting that the whole evening. Not fair? Well, as ever, go and judge for yourselves. They’re heading out to the Netherlands and Germany over the next week or so and then, I’ve no doubt, will be back out to Japan. You could also buy their new album, or for a touch of nostalgia settle down with a DVD of In Search of the Castaways. I know which I’d do. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

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