Good news for retro garage-rock fans: after some years away doing other things, The Greenhornes are back. The long-haired three-piece from Cincinnati are touring to promote their first new album since 2002, the excellent Four Stars, released earlier this month.
While singer/guitarist Craig Fox has been doing his own stuff, bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler have been busy with another, higher-profile, “side-project”: The Raconteurs. For good or bad, from their new material and the way they perform together you would never guess members of The Greenhornes had “diversified”, since the music continues in the same vein and the band still put on a tight show.
Maybe it’s because they haven’t been here for so long, but it’s surprising how much of the old stuff they play live, with plenty of songs from their first three albums (plus the 2005 EP East Grand Blues) and only about half of their new album represented. The intimate, brick-walled, railway-arch venue of the Cargo is ideally suited to their rough-edged sound. With no messing around, they come on stage bang on time and deliver a shortish, punchy set with virtually no chat to the audience, letting the music do the talking.
They seem to owe even more to classic British bands of the ’60s than to American rockers. The catchy current single Saying Goodbye sounds like a previously unreleased song by The Who, with Pete Townsend-style reverberating guitar chords, though the immobile Fox is not into theatrics like windmill motions or scissor kicks. The compelling It’s Not Real, on the other hand, is pure early Kinks, with Dave Davies-like razor-sharp riffs driving the song throughout, though sadly there’s no harmonica-playing live.
Can’t Stand It has the garagey rawness of The Troggs‘ Wild Thing, while even the bluesy Too Much Sorrow sounds like it’s been raucously recycled by The Yardbirds, even though The Greenhornes don’t generate the same visceral excitement on stage.
In contrast, Better Off Without sees the band in soulful Stax mood, in a deliciously bitter-sweet love song and the dreamily moody Go Tell Henry is reminiscent of The Doors‘ seductive allure, in two of the strongest tracks from the new album. Pattern Skies seems to come from The Byrds’ psychedelic period (but without the recorded-version fuzz guitar), while Lies nods towards a later, more grungy, Nirvana-type sound.
The Greenhornes are not going to win any awards for stylistic innovation, as their music tends to encourage you to “spot the influence”, but their songs are strong and they play them with verve. Originally five-strong, the band now has a more stripped-down sound, though on stage they are supported by a rhythm guitarist/keyboard player. When they go off after only 45 minutes, they certainly leave you pining for more. And with Jack White and Brendan Benson waiting for their rhythm section’s return, who knows when we will get the chance to hear the band again.