The Bowery, New Oxford Street, London – July 2011.
Drummer David Barbarossa boasts an impressive curriculum vitae. Beats International, Adamski, Chicane, S-Express’s Mark Moore, Ex-Raincoat Gina Birch’s Hangovers and even electro-pop irritants Republica have all benefited from his skill with the sticks. But it’s probably for his pioneering work with Adam & the Ants and Bow Wow Wow that he’s best regarded. With the former his delicate, almost jazzy percussion distinguished the early Ants from their punk peers, giving the unsettling debut album Dirk Wears White Sox a sheen of sophistication sorely lacking from the three-chord thrash so de rigeur of the genre.
Popular – though not entirely accurate – legend has it that Adam, desperate for success, then invited Malcolm McClaren to reboot the band in exchange for ÃÂ£1000 in a brown paper bag. Cash in hand, the modern-day Fagin promptly half-inched the Ants, including Barbarossa, to form a new band, Bow Wow Wow, though not before introducing them all to an eclectic mix of world music, most notably 1971 single Burundi Black which added Western electric instruments to traditional African drums and chanting. It was a blueprint that would form the basis for Bow Wow Wow and Adam’s new chart-bound Ants and play a significant part in both bands’ success.
Yet while the new teeny-bopper idol Adam used an arguably dumbed-down, chart-friendly version of these tribal rhythms to propel himself to number one, Barbarossa picked up the Burundi baton and ran with it, blending these and other influences to form an inventive and distinctive style all of his own. It was a style imitated by many others, some obvious – Killing Joke, Flowers of Romance-era PiL, Red Hot Chilli Peppers – others less so. Phil Collins anyone?
Admirers of this style will be pleased to note that, after years of dalliances with electronic dance music, Barbarossa has returned to his rhythmical roots with his latest project, Horse Brothers. The other half of the act – Daniel Stewart – has a less prestigious pedigree than his sidekick (he’s worked with the acclaimed, experimental Sian Alice Group) and on first glance is an unassuming frontman. Perched on a stool, he cradles his guitar, rocking back and forth gently like Matthew Modine in Birdy, occasionally stabbing at a bank of effects pedals. Yet Horse Brothers’ dynamic is palpably that of a duo, rather than star drummer and backing man. Attention constantly switches from one to the other as Stewart’s galloping, hypnotic, Americana intertwines with Barbarossa’s dazzlingly intricate kinetics.
It’s an unusual and powerful blend that has shades of Nirvana or Queen’s of the Stone Age. Barbarossa means “red beard” but it’s Stewart who’s actually the red-bearded one. In the half-light of the sweaty Bowery he looks uncannily like Vincent van Goch before he cut his ear off, especially when he periodically breaks from his bluesy melodies to bark some impenetrable madness like a cross between Mark E Smith and the sort of gentleman of the road one might bump into in Camden Town in the early hours of Sunday morning. Such is the impressive barrage of sound the pair can muster, it’s hard to pick out many lyrics, though titles such as In The Ground and The Hangman’s Neck, suggest they will be every bit as disturbing as the gleam in the singer’s eyes.
Despite only having played a handful of gigs, Horse Brothers seem to have corralled an impressive following. Marco Pirroni is here along with Ray McVeigh of The Professionals and a host of leather-jacketed hangers on. But unlike many of the Class of 77 who are happy to trade on former glories, Horse Brothers seem to possess a genuinely adventurous spirit, striking out boldly across the musical desert like trailblazers of the Wild West. Where they’ll get to is anyone’s guess but it should be an interesting ride. Definitely worth not cutting your ears off for.