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22 March 1998

An Evening of Distinctive Songwriters
Birmingham, Ronnie Scott's
Support to Thought Gang, supported by Martin Riley

Review by Jane Batty


To begin with, Ronnie Scott's itself is sometimes home to unfulfilled potential: the red glow of womb-like warmth and seedy gangster excitement can either be enhanced or strangled by the people filling its small space. The latter group seem to be making their presence felt tonight, so engrossed in the latest fill-in-the-blank trend that at times you cannot hear the performers for their incessant chatter. Its easy to understand both Martin Riley's tired resignation and Carina Round's frustration, which intermittently distracts her to cessation of playing. Both audience and, with justification, performers are lacking focus.

With the night billed as 'An Evening of Distinctive Songwriters' I was a little dubious about the performances I would be witnessing, 'distinctive' possessing several rather unpleasant connotations. I, therefore, watched with reserved hope a convincing substitute for Ray Manzarek, complete with velvet suit and moustache, take the stage. Martin Riley's music sounds nothing like his appearance would suggest; a curious mixture of jazz arrangement, classical composition and Bacharach craftsmanship which, in pieces such as 'Meditation' and the closing improvisation, is compellingly beautiful. The disappointment is that he has found neither suitable vocal, in his own voice or that of his guest singer, nor lyrical foil for his instrumental talent. It seems a shame to be wasting such potentially glorious songs.

Carina Round's sound is much more aggressive and pared down, centred around acoustic guitar, although Martin joins her on piano at points. Her brand of forthright, often emotionally destroying, music may or may not appeal, but what unfailingly impresses is the honesty of her performance. She constructs no barriers between herself and the audience, directly communicating lost love and pain through her swooping vocal range and tone. Despite the overwhelming emotional content of the majority of her songs, particularly moving in 'End Song', her between-song comments are light-hearted and unassuming, and it is this balance that keeps the attentive listeners with her (unfortunately not even talk of bra straps can break the babble of rude drinkers).

An altogether different flavour is provided by the final offering from Thought Gang: a fantastic mix of funky blues grooves and fine pop melodies presented by a charismatic, intriguing frontman. Due to the ridiculous timetabling of trains, however, I was forced to leave early in the set - my enmity towards British Rail at least tempered by a great soundtrack to my departure. Never mind lack of fulfilment, sometimes it's just good to know the potential's still out there.

Originally online at The Horse site