Philip Rambow Trio
What’s Cookin’, London
24th February 2022
Three of the hardest-working musicians of the past 40 years get together for an evening of bluesy Americana inspired by the passage of time.
Their names may not be immediately familiar in every household but Phil Rambow, Martin Belmont and Clare Kenny have CVs that most musicians would envy. You’ll have heard them even if you haven’t heard *of* them.
Rambow started out at the helm of cult glam band The Winkies in 1975, teaming up with Eno after he went solo from Roxy Music, joined the emerging punk scene in New York and played with Mick Ronson and Kirsty McColl, before re-emerging in recent times as an elder statesman of Dylanesque blues-flavoured Americana.
At around the same time as The Winkies began, Belmont – self-styled “guitar picker from another age” – was moving over from roadie for Brinsley Schwartz to guitarist with Ducks Deluxe, becoming a stalwart of the pub rock scene. The quintessential musician’s musician – or, more accurately, guitarist’s guitarist – he was also a lynchpin of Graham Parker & The Rumour and the recently-reformed Los Pistoleros, lending his licks along the way to everyone from Carl Perkins to Johnny Cash, Nick Lowe to Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg to Desmond Dekker.
The duo’s newest recruit is Clare Kenny, who has played bass in numerous bands since the 1980s, first with Amazulu and then everyone from Shakespears Sister to Aztec Camera and Orange Juice, Sinead O’Connor, Indigo Girls and, in a link with Rambow, Brian Eno.
Performing as a trio at East London’s regular country music club night What’s Cookin’ in Leytonstone, they exude all that experience on a collection of songs drawn mainly from Rambow’s most recent collection, Canadiana, blending blues rhythms, folky fingerpicking, country guitar licks, Dylanesque vocals and wry, ironic, frequently funny lyrics.
If Rambow has a theme in his songwriting (and he does) it’s the passage of time reflected through his fleeting Zelig-like moments in the spotlight – the Winkies album that failed when the group split up on the day of its release; the aborted UK tour with Eno after a collapsed lung; the CBGBs appearances just as punk crossed the Atlantic – and the several occasions when bad luck and bad timing stood in the way of fame and fortune.
Many of these are songs made for a weeping pedal steel – and were just that on record – but in the instrument’s absence tonight, Belmont finds a way to approximate its distinctive wail with nothing more than his six-string electric guitar, his mournful licks underlining the melancholia of the lyrics,
With Rambow carrying the tunes on his acoustic guitar, Kenny holding down the rhythm and Belmont embellishing them with tasteful curlicues of country electric guitar, it’s an intoxicating brew, from the opening jug band-ragtime fusion of Springtime In My Heart, which sets the mood for the septuagenarian singer with a lyric about trying to stay young in the social media age.
There’s more humour in Piggin’ Out, a song with a western swing arrangement, about how gourmet food has replaced cocaine as Rambow’s drug of choice in his dotage: “I really like a mashed potato / I much prefer it now to blow.” It’s not all humour, however. Out On Your own is a mournful break-up ballad in waltz time that showcases Rambow’s weathered voice with a heartbreaking lyric: “You’re out on your own, I’m all alone / Here I am stuck in a house that once was my home.”
He delves into his 2015 comeback album, aptly titled Whatever Happened To Philip Rambow, released following a period during which he gave up music altogether to become a private detective, for another self-deprecating song, The Birth Of Cool. It’s a hymn to baby boomers, encapsulating the way youthful ideals are overtaken by life: “We started off as free men and now we are dying as serfs / We thought we would make things better and then we made things worse.”
There’s a flavour of the Mexican border in the wistful Americana of Deal With An Angel, while Things Are Not Looking Good celebrates hard times to a jaunty tune before Rambow goes deep into his past to perform what is surely his best known song. He wrote and played on Kirsty McColl’s There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis and this version, almost unrecognisable from the 1981 hit single, takes it in a very different direction.
They end the set with She Left Me For Jesus, one of those out-and-out funny country songs (like How Can I Love You If You Won’t Go Away) by Hayes Carll, an American country singer with a similar line in humour to Rambow. And they return to revive the good-time Cajun mood with Louisiana Blues and a final tribute to Dylan, Rambow’s primary vocal inspiration becoming more apparent as he takes on It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.
It says a great deal for him that he is able to do it justice, on an evening when two septuagenerians and a fifty-something demonstrate that age is no drawback when it comes to making great music.