Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Fugs @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

11 June 2011

The average age of audience members for this show looks to be about 55-65, which is no major surprise; it has been over four decades since New York oddballs The Fugs last hit this island. Much has changed, much has stayed the same. War and politics are still abhorrent things, swear words still have the power to shock (thank you, Sandi Toksvig), and poets are still reaching for the moon.

During their first incarnation, poets Ed Sanders and the late Tuli Kupferberg were considered reactionaries and revolutionaries, whereas at this show, the rather scatty looking frontman was referred to as “the great bard and historian, Edward Sanders”. He’s now revered instead of feared. Somewhat lost on the enormous stage, he introduces each number with a guide to its influence or precedent, be it the lost auguries of William Blake or the change in society during the latter part of the last century.

Starting with probably their best loved number Slum Goddess, the group are quick to have the audience tapping their feet and sniggering at the crudeness (“Fucking A man, CIA man”). As on record, the majority of numbers can be split into two styles; wistful earnest hymnals and fuzzy riff shout outs. Maybe it’s the cavernous hall or perhaps the tender eardrums of the audience, but the show never reaches cacophony or riot status.

On their acclaimed 1968 album It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest (gotta love those beatnik titles!) was a delightful ditty entitled Wide Wide River. On its outing here the audience are asked to sing along. Said chorus goes: “River of shit, river of shit, Flow on, flow on, river of shit.” Back then, the song was one of anger and frustration. Fast forward a lifetime and it’s now an anthem of depressed resignation.

Losing Kupferberg has had a profound effect on the dynamic of the group. The humour is still evident but overall they seem to struggle with their lot. Halfway through the rambling set comes a bittersweet tribute to the singer, who passed away last year, and as videos of him appear above the band, they mourn their lost compadre.

From then onwards there is a noticeable change in Sanders’ mood. Despite excellent support from the present line up, it’s obvious the driving force has been lost. Drummer Coby Batty flitters around various instruments whilst guitarist Steve Taylor and bassist Scott Petito do their best to inspire Sanders. It’s an honour to see this awkwardly influential group after such a long absence, but it’s also a sobering experience. Perhaps the counter culture did win afterall. Instead of pushing for external change, they taught us to find happiness inside.

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The Fugs @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London