Brighton five-piece band, Levellers are celebrating their 30th anniversary by releasing a new 10 track album, “We the Collective” recorded at the iconic Abbey Road Studios and released on their own label, On The Fiddle Recordings. To celebrate the album’s release on March the 9th, Levellers are out there right now on a full acoustic tour. I was lucky enough to catch them at the Roundhouse in London as part of their In the Round Festival last Sunday night.
Levellers have brought us seven Top40 albums and fourteen Top40 Singles over their 30 year history and for a while in the early- to mid-1990’s they might just have been one of the most popular indie bands in Britain. Their 1994 Glastonbury performance is certainly legendary! It’s probably fair to say that there’s a whole generation of music listeners in the UK that have a copy of “Levelling the Land” lurking somewhere in their music collection (I’m listening to my particularly “battered” version as I write this!). It’s also fair to say that I feel a certain amount of nostalgia associated when listening to the Levellers because that period was also the one that for me, marked the most impressionable portion of my teenage years. I fondly remember that wherever you were (although perhaps especially in the southwest of England where I grew up) the mosh-pit would be utterly packed with joyously happy revellers bouncing and singing at the tops of their voices every time “One Way” or “Just the One” got played.
In a recent interview, the Guardian newspaper described Levellers sound as “folk-punk”. In some ways that’s a perfect description, in others, perhaps an understatement. In that their songs are a fusion of heavy, thumping indie drum beats and jangling guitar with frenzied fiddle playing, the folk-punk moniker is right on the money. In that their lyrics are often highly politically charged pieces of social commentary and protest, the label describes the content perfectly. However, the Levellers lyrics do more, they vividly illustrate the lives of the socially disenfranchised, painting very clear images in the mind making their stories very easy to connect to, and this in turn allows a crowd listening to them to share a very personal connection across any divides creating an incredibly positive atmosphere when the band play. It’s this aspect of the Levellers music, their ability as master storytellers, that its possible “folk-punk” doesn’t really do justice to.
Levellers new album, “We The Collective”, marks somewhat of a departure in style for Levellers. Wanting to do something different with their not inconsiderable back catalogue, they’ve enlisted the help of a string section and producer John Leckie (Radiohead, Stone Roses) to develop acoustic arrangements eight old songs including a cover of “Subvert” (originally by 80’s anarcho-punk, band Zounds) and two new songs, “Shame” and “Drugs Bust McGee”.
The Roundhouse is something a bit special as music venues go… Once a railway engine repair shed, now a performing arts centre and venue, the Roundhouse is also a registered charity and runs a creative programme for 11-25 year olds in live music, circus, theatre and new media. It is packed with rehearsal rooms film production rooms and recording studios under the large, circular main space and forms a vibrant hub for London’s creative community. Levellers performed there as part of the “In The Round” festival, a series of fully-seated events that leverage the unique architecture of the Roundhouse to seat the crowd around the band, perhaps the complete antithesis of the smaller, back-room venues, or festival fields where many of the crowd may have first encountered the Levellers.
Just as the setting may have seemed somewhat incongruous to the more hardcore fan, perhaps the sound of the opening song, “Exodus” (from their No.1 album, Zeitgeist released in 1995), may also have come as something of a surprise. Gone was the hard-edged, heavy folk-punk classic and in its place was something altogether more nuanced with the new arrangement and expanded string section drawing out a smooth and beautiful melody which gave the listener more space to absorb and contemplate the lyrics of the song. The audience’s response to this new phenomenon was both immediate and positive with a huge round of applause unleashed at the end of the song.
It quickly dawned on the crowd that by boldly changing the arrangement of their songs and using the strings to change the feels of the music, the Levellers had cleverly shifted and focussed the emphasis of the listeners experience towards the lyrics and the storytelling aspect of their compositions and in doing so, provided a startlingly fresh take on old and familiar songs. That wasn’t to say the Levellers were not afraid of introducing new songs. “Drug Bust McGee” went down an absolute storm, but it was perhaps with “The Shame” that they had the greatest impact on the crowd. “Hard-Hitting” is one of those phrases that seems overused. Perhaps more often attention seeking than heralding any form of uncompromising revelation, the value of the phrase becomes diminished. But to describe the combination of new song “The Shame” with “Cardboard Box City” (released on their 1990 debut album, “A Weapon Called the Word”) as hard-hitting, focussing as these songs do (with a laser-like clarity) on the plight of refugees, and the plight of the homeless, does not in anyway undersell the words. At the end of these two songs, the crowd was left somewhat hushed and perhaps a little somber, with many reflecting inwardly on their luck and all the positive things in their own lives. Levellers followed this double punch of stinging social commentary with a hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Elation” but it was only when Mark Chadwick commented that it seemed “a bit quiet for a Sunday night…” and Simon Friend responded, “I bet it wasn’t this quiet in 1967!”, a direct reference to the fact that Jimi Hendrix played one of his earliest shows in the UK in the Roundhouse (which had only been open for 4 months by that point) that the crowd began to stir once more from its reverie. A short, but foot-stompingly forceful cover of “Subvert” (originally released by Zounds on their debut EP “Can’t Cheat Karma” in 1980) powerful enough to convince the most ardent conformist that a little spot of light anarchy might well be the preferred way forwards, brought a more upbeat air that continued to build through the remaining three songs of the set. “Men-An-Tol” started to bring the audience to its feet and the final song, a bit of a Levellers classic, “Hope Street” saw the crowd up and dancing.
The band left the stage to a huge round of applause, only to return shortly after for a short encore of “15 Years” and perhaps one of Levellers best known and loved songs “Just the One” which formed a real high-note to close the evening.
The biting commentary and stories of those on society’s fringes remain, but the acoustic arrangements twinned with the smoothness of the added strings round off the confrontational edges of the Levellers sound. Perhaps that’s the point. For a band that has such a significant and avid following, but perhaps lacks commensurate levels of air-play and press coverage, redesigning the delivery system for the all too relevant messages the Levellers song writing looks to impart is a very worthy endeavour. At the beginning of the evening, it was possible that some of the Levellers more ardent fans may have felt this new musical approach would leave them feeling short-changed and the memory of their favourite music somehow tarnished. However by the end of the evening it was clear that perhaps the opposite was true with the Roundhouse filled with a very happy crowd having listened to old stories being told again in a new and highly engaging way. What’s more, there were many notable absences from tonights set list (including “What a Beautiful Day” and large chunks of “Levelling the Land”) proving it’s possible for Levellers to move an audience without just resorting to playing all their big hits. At the Roundhouse, Levellers delivered the unexpected and did it incredibly well indeed.
- England My Home
- Drug Bust McGee
- Chemically Free
- Edge of the World
- 61 Minutes of Pleading
- Alone in the Darkness
- The Shame
- Cardboard Box City
- Hard Fight
- Subvert (Zounds Cover)
- Hope Street
- 15 Years (Encore)
- Just the One (Encore)
The Levellers at the Roundhouse – 04/02/2017
Article first published on Rock At Night
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