Levellers are painted into the “’90s band” corner rather unfairly. Certainly their most successful period, for recordings at least, coincided with their first three albums: A Weapon Called The Word, Levelling The Land and Levellers, in the early ’90s. But since then they’ve created the successful Beautiful Days festival as well as their own label, and co-front man Mark Chadwick has turned his hand to solo artistry. Between their various projects these Beanfield battlers are the very definition of entrepreneurial spirit.
And as they as men amble toward middle age and into the band’s third decade, the notion of taking it easy doesn’t seem to have occurred to them. Having already toured A Weapon Called The Word for its 20th anniversary, this year it’s the turn of arguably their strongest album, Levelling The Land, to receive a full live outing across three nights, postponed from earlier in the year. A packed-out Brixton Academy testifies to the album’s – and the band’s – enduring popularity. With the Tories back in charge of the country, Levellers’ anti-establishment message has fertile feeding grounds.
Not that they’re keen to preach. They play the first half of the album without speaking at all, preferring instead to let the music do the talking. Student disco favourite One Way is predictably met with the sort of audience participation usually reserved for the days of football terraces, but this partisan crowd greet the rest of the album’s material with the same singalong enthusiasm. Only in the middle of the set, where saggy B-sides provide a kind of breathing space between courses, does the fervour wane.
A disappointment of sorts, at least for hardcore Levellers fans, comes in the form of a revised rendition of The Boatman. The psychedelic ending is present and correct but for the crucial digeridoo, previously played by a painted figure with a gigantic instrument who dominated the stage. His place this evening is taken by two female dancers who meander about, waving their arms. It’s not a happy trade-off, even if the rest of the band step up to the plate. Co-front man Simon Friend really lets rip with his lead vocals, especially on Sell Out, while bassist Jeremy Cunningham’s totemic red dreds flail familiarly and Jon Sevink’s fiddle playing is lent a circus appeal, his wiry legs and top hat often in silhouette.
Beanfield’s lyrics, referencing the violent set-to between police and a travellers’ convoy during the last Tory government, called to mind the Dale Farm evictions this year, suggesting that the world hasn’t changed so much in 20 years. Another Man’s Cause speaks of human fallout in the wake of war – any war. 15 Years by contrast is a paean to dashed hopes and the passing of time, as touching now as on its release. While these songs reference particular events of their time, their continuing lyrical resonance is both an indictment of the political reality of the UK in 2011 and a sop to the band who had the courage to put such issues on the map in the first place.
With two support bands whose success also peaked in the early ’90s – Back To The Planet and Dreadzone – supporting, this was something of a nostalgiafest. But Levellers’ set was also a reminder that, quite apart from their lyrics, their English folk-punk mix of strong melodies and traditional rhythms as exemplified so strongly on Levelling The Land has stood the test of time.
Levellers played: Video Intro, One Way, Game, 15 Years, The Boatman, Liberty, Far From Home, Hard Fight, Dance Before The Storm, Last Days of Winter, The Devil Went Down To Georgia, Sell Out, Another Man’s Cause, Road, Riverflow, The Beanfield Encore: Truth Is, Carry Me, Cholera Well Second Encore: Beautiful Day