This is going to be a lengthy post, largely because it’s effectively three blogs rolled into one. Two of the blogs I should have written last year but due to other constraints I didn’t. However the time has come to talk about two of the best gigs I’ve ever been to (and another one that’s up there), two of the best records I’ve heard for a long time and a band who – if there was any justice in the world – should be massive.
It began in January 2014 with an impulse buy. I read a positive review of a record by a band called Blitz Kids, liked the stuff I checked out then saw they were playing Leeds Cockpit and decided I’d go along. In one of those little moments that one’s life hinges upon, when the night came I had to dash for the train and literally got on just as it was arriving. Had I missed it I would have made Blitz Kids but not the support band who were literally coming on stage as I arrived. That band was Colt 45.
Obviously I go to a lot of gigs and – contrary to the impression I sometimes give – I’m not that easily impressed. I may nod along and applaud but it’s very rare that a band has me absolutely transfixed. But Colt 45 put me in mind of Jon Landau’s famous reaction on seeing Bruce Springsteen for the first time. I can honestly say that I’ve never been confronted by such power and urgency that I saw on the Cockpit stage that night. Not only was the band’s sound terrific but they ripped from song to song and each one sounded great. As soon as the show finished (Blitz Kids incidentally were well worth the ticket but didn’t come close to the support band) I snapped up a copy of their CD.
That CD was Coughing Up Confessions which was already slightly out of date in terms of the band’s set and more pop punk orientated than their subsequent release. Like most independently recorded CDs it’s a bit ragged in places but judged on its own merits there are songs any band would be proud of, from the rage of Everyone Will Let You Down to the more introspective I’m Drowning, Not Waving. However there were two songs that raised Colt 45 far above the opposition, one on each half of the record. Those two songs were Happiness Is A Dying Art and Chasing Yesterday.
Happiness Is A Dying Art is the song where Colt 45 decisively find their style; the verse opening with vocals barked out almost like gunfire before the chorus enters in a sudden blast of melody. Chasing Yesterday, the song whose first line gives the album its title, follows the same blueprint but also introduces another Colt 45 hallmark in its refrain, `You will make it through this and you’ll make it out of here.` In itself this is nothing grandstanding, indeed almost cliche but read on …
So who are Colt 45? The line up consists of Neil Harper (guitar, vocals), Gareth Jenkins (bass) and Adam Lewis (drums). One description which they seem quite fond of is of them as, `a trio of pissed off punks from Cumbria`. They give a long list of influences of their facebook page of which the better known ones are The Replacements, Manic Street Preachers and The Gaslight Anthem. Unlike a lot of bands they don’t broadcast themselves as anything exceptional. In terms of their sound; the odd chorus harmony aside they’re a straightforward riff – verse – chorus – repeat act. While very much a group effort the ace in the pack is frontman Neil Harper; he has a distinctive gravelly voice somewhere between Rod Stewart and Roger Daltrey and is the architect of the guitar runs that mark their best songs.
Having been blown away at the Cockpit and with the debut album a constant on my Ipod the next thing was to try and catch them again live. An opportunity presented itself in March 14 when they played Gullivers in Manchester (shout out here for my friends Larry and Jamie who allowed me the use of their spare room – still much appreciated). This was a slightly more low key gig supporting ska band The Hostiles; not an obvious match but it seemed to go well. To be fair this show didn’t amaze me the way the Cockpit show did, partly because the element of surprise wasn’t there and the acoustics weren’t as strong. However it was still impressive stuff.
In July 14 the band released their second album The Tide Is Turning which – and I’ll stick my neck out here – may be the best record of the decade so far. Am I exaggerating? Maybe, maybe not.
The opening trilogy is worth the money by itself; the enigmatic call to arms of Salt Water and the more straightforward first single, OK. Then comes the three and half minute blast of brilliance that is I Thought I Knew Best. There’s no substitute for hearing it but this song has everything a great song should have including mystery, almost every time I listen to it there are nuances I haven’t picked up on before. There is nothing about ITIKB that could be done differently for me. It’s a fantastic song.
The remaining eight songs on The Tide Is Turning are also killers. From small town tales such as 595 and Found My Home to slower numbers The Simple Things Are Working and I Remember When The Rain came down there’s no filler here; the weaker tracks would be standouts in most normal circumstances.
Where Colt 45 rise above the pack for me is howthey sidestep the petulance and fantasy that characterises a lot of pop punk bands, even the better ones. They don’t write songs about sleeping in bed all day and lying awake at night thinking about girls, instead they talk about getting out there and making something of yourself. For Colt 45 life doesn’t suck because you can’t party as often as you like, it’s cruel because the odds are often stacked against you. Put simply most bands hesitate to punch a brick wall because they might injure their knuckles, Colt 45’s music is the sound of having to bleed sometime.
On one hand it’s nothing madly original. Stereophonics wrote about small town life on Word Gets Around, the debut never they never managed to top but that album was riddled with filler. On the Born To Run album Springsteen breathed similar lyrical fire to Colt 45 (breaking out while you can) and, it should be added, found his true greatness writing about those who got left behind. Colt 45 are following in an old tradition and it will be interesting to see where they go next; I’ll make a few suggestions in a bit.
Which takes me on to their first headline tour and a chance to see them at the Royal Park pub in Leeds. It was my third time but the first in almost a year and also the first when they weren’t the support act. I didn’t really need a reminder of how fantastic the band are live but I got one. Inevitably I Thought I Knew Best was the highlight but there was also a fine version of Shit Happens from Coughing Up Confessions; their punkiest song featuring call and response between Neil and Gareth. During the show the latter frequently strode out into the audience with his bass. They finished with a surprise cover of I Drove All Night; one of the first records I ever bought and still a favourite today; this was Roy Orbison’s wall of sound inspired version but I also love Cyndi Lauper’s more skeletal reading. However it didn’t feel like a cover, Colt 45 made it their own and brought a new dimension to it doing so.
So to finish. On the one hand for Colt 45 anything seems to be possible. Neil’s voice is so versatile that the band could easily expand stylistically without sacrificing anything of their sound, particularly if the right producer gets behind them. Will they follow the Born To Run of The Tide Is Turning with a Darkness On The Edge Of Town? On the other hand I have to be realistic. In Leeds they were playing to a few people in the upstairs room of an out of town pub. Hopefully at the very least they’ll keep making music and I’ll get to see them a few more times.
Finally, this has been a frustrating blog to write because words can’t really describe how passionate I am and how passionate YOU should be about this band. Words are wonderful things but with Colt 45 all you really need is the music.