Whippin' Manhattan - Ben Ottewell and Ian Ball play Gomez' "Bring It On", (le) Poisson Rouge
Updated: Oct 29
22 October 2023: I am in NYC, staying with my lovely friends Paul and Clare. Most people on holiday go and do different things to their norm - relax and sunbathe; see spectacular sights; visit places of historical significance. Me? I walk around cities (I live in one of the best in the world, so this is not unusual), hang around in bars drinking with old friends and go and see bands.
Last night, Paul and I saw Depeche Mode. Tonight, the three of us head down to Greenwich Village, via a trip to Brooklyn, to see Ben and Ian - two of the three singers in 90s five-piece Gomez. As Britpop was starting to fall apart, and people were bored of bands channeling their inner Ray Davies, Gomez were a breath of fresh air. Someone once described them to me as "students jamming, while stoned". But what on earth was wrong with that?
The band were a curious mix - three singers was unusual - Tom and Ian had sweet, gentle, voices, whereas Ben sounded like he was from the Deep South, smoked 60 a day and had been taught to sing by Tom Waits. But his gruff tones and the others' more melodic vocals complemented each other perfectly. Bring It On, their debut, was just great. Jazz, blues, pop, psychedelia - the music sounded like a band that had been going years, and nothing like any debut album I had ever heard.
So when I spotted that two of the band were playing while I am over in NYC, it seemed only polite to trundle down to see them. Plus a table seat ticket was only $30 - how civilised!
The venue, (le) Poisson Rouge, is also a new one for me, down on Bleecker Street. It's a a place I first heard of in 1990, as Lloyd Cole was channelling his inner-Lou Reed and singing about NYC - "It's raining on Bleecker street"...it's a basement venue, that's dark and cool, and the table layout makes it feel like we are here for some sophisticated, but illicit, sleazy show. I love it. It's how I always fantasised about gig venues in NYC, and the antithesis of last night's enorodome.
We arrive to catch the end of the support act, Buddy. We had checked out Buddy and unfortunately, Spotify was doing it's usual bang up job and connected us to a not very good hip hop act of the same name, even listing him as supporting Ben and Ian. We don't rush down as we are not bothered, but catch his last three songs.
Damn you Spotify, as Buddy is great and a completely different artist. He plays gentle acoustic numbers, with Ian Ball from the main act backing him on the songs. Buddy wanders out to sing amongst the tables and is a warm, engaging performer. I wish we'd seen the whole set, but I'll catch him next time. He's also recorded an album with Ben and Ian, which I pick up from the merch stall after the gig - I'll have to wait to get home to play it and can't wait.
Then the main act take the stage, for a stripped down recreation of the whole of Bring It On. The album's rootsy feel makes it perfect for this simpler performance. They kick off with a more folky version of Get Miles. It's nothing like I remember it, and that's fabulous. Paul, Clare and I all look at each other and minds are already blown. This will be a GREAT gig.
And that's the joy of live music - an evening that I expected to be some gentle nostalgia turns out to be the best gig of the year so far. They band work through the whole album, not following the original track listing, but playing a set that flows live. Whippin' Piccadilly is fantastic, and I recall singing it to some poor colleague, drinking in Manchester after a conference (they were unimpressed, and probably correctly).
Buddy rejoins the stage for Get Myself Arrested and the audience by now are in full on singalong mode - "Got some friends in my BMW, tryin'a get themselves arrested!" and now everyone is hollering along and beaming.
As they finish with Tijuana Lady, I think they are about to play The Only Living Boy In New York, which would have been superb. Just the two guys on stage, the track sounds like the late, great John Martyn, all unrequited love, and it's the saddest song I have ever heard that contains the word "enchilada". Possibly the only song to do so, to be fair. Tom's voice is stunning, all smoky and rich.
They encore with Limited Vibes, from the forthcoming album Ben and Ian have recorded with Buddy. And then a quick medley of Rhythm & Blues Alibi / How We Operate, Ben strapping on an electric guitar - rocking out as they segue from the former's gentle strum into the latter's harder reflection on intimacy and loss.
And then that's it. They are gone. An hour or so of fabulous music, thoroughly recommended. No idea where you can buy the album (Handbag), but I'll find out and add a link when I do. A nice Australian woman I chat to tells me that Gomez are recording a new album, which now has me very excited. This was brilliant, and is my gig of the year, unless something truly stunning comes along in the next couple of months.
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