This is Demon Barbers’ first full-length album in five years. Constant touring as a band and The Lock In dance roadshow has generated a repertoire and reputation that flies high when it comes to producing innovative live entertainment. It is, however, not quite so easy to replicate the same adrenaline-laced excitement in the studio environment. Not so for the Barbers. Disco At The Tavern crackles with all their characteristic energy, a triumphant celebration of the genre-busting musical mayhem and invention which has been their trademark for the last fifteen years From the introductory romp through the Prince of Cabourg’s Hornpipe right up to the final eponymously titled seven-minute masterclass in beat-blended dance numbers, there isn’t a dull moment. Brimming with exuberant virtuosity and with so much talent to hand, it is an album that could throw the kitchen sink at the music but in the skilful hands of Sting’s producers Donal Hodgson and Kipper it remains beautifully transparent and detailed throughout.
The material is all top drawer and the arrangements fabulous, some in their complexity, others in their simplicity: from Aye Fly, a spirited instrumental, packed with contrasting pace and voices to May Day with its hints back to medieval chant amidst the warp and weft of piano, organ and percussion; or the Gothic darkness of Sir Lionel and the late Cyril Tawney’s Sally Free and Easy, both with a horn section reminiscent of an Earth, Wind and Fire workout. The scratch, samples, percussion and beatbox of DJ Wax On, Ali Mac and Finn Barmer sit as comfortably within the English modal ballads as they do astride the instrumental breakouts. Barber’s voice is rich and true to his traditional roots with the occasional roughly-torn edge. His delivery of Two Brothers over Matt Crum’s exquisite piano and Bryony Griffith’s fiddle and harmony vocal is perfect whilst Three Ravens stands bravely amongst relentless beats, syncopated fiddle, tumbling piano and concertina, crashing cymbals, scratch and huge backing vocals. Whoever thought you would make ‘down down derry down’ sound cool?
Barber leads on most of the songs although he does have The Wilson Family powerhouse to aid him. In contrasting lighter tones, Bryony Griffith, as well as crafting out some gorgeous harmony parts, produces a very powerful Sir Lionel commencing with a well-crafted chordal arrangement over scratch, hip hop and reggae beats, taut drumming from Ben Griffith, culminating with impressive cymbal work and Northern Soul brass. Barber then picks up a similar groove with Go Boys Go (aka The Chemical Worker’s Song by Ron Angel), DJ Wax On scratching with an acidic edge to match the lyrics and the unrelenting step-hop. In this case, the kitchen sink does get chucked in but the production keeps it all in check and sharp as a shard of steel.
Hampson and Barber are right on the money throughout providing both nimble tune and rhythm work on various squeezeboxes. Angus Milne, when he’s not anchoring the beat, finds some lovely bass lines, notably in the triple layered track Disco At The Tavern/The Rock Stack/Riggs Low, where the whole band show off their rich variety of instrumental chops over shifting beats and tempos and Winwood-esque keybards.
There are soulful moments (Swimming Song) and darker tales (Bitter Withy, Two Brothers). There are songs where you feel that you have landed in a ska-infested Shanghai opium den (Rambling Rover) or some bizarre, fabulous scratching shantyman’s singaround (Ranzo). Whatever, it is all joyous music that will leave listeners entranced and dancers exhilarated, every note produced with remarkable vision and style. I love the way it carries the tradition on, I would like to think that previous carriers of the tradition would have loved it too!