published: 9 /
Adrian Janes finds much to recommend in 'Live at Rockpalast - Markthalle Hamburg 1979' and 'Live at Grughalle Essen 1981', two recently reissued CDs/DVDs of heartfelt rock funk and soul from former Family vocalist Roger Chapman and his group at that time, the Shortlist
Roger Chapman was originally the impassioned vocalist of Family in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the most impressive and successful rock band to come out of Leicester - throwing a discreet drape jacket over the horror that was Showaddywaddy - before Kasabian. After they split, he continued to work with writing partner Charlie Whitney in Chapman-Whitney Streetwalkers, but by the late ‘70s, feeling out of place in post-punk Britain (“I’d been battering my brains out for years in the UK, but musicians like me get slagged to death and I didn’t need that“) he took the chance to relaunch his career in Germany.
These two concerts from 1979 and 1981, recorded for the German TV programme 'Rockpalast', capture Chapman early on in his solo years. The bruised feeling suggested by his words above perhaps explains the relative conservatism of the music in comparison with Family’s adventurousness. This is more the sound of a man trying to make a living from music, rather than romantically living for music.
But it is also far from someone going through the motions, Chapman being incapable of investing any song he sings with anything less than heartfelt passion. Many of the songs here are perfectly good rock-soul or rock-funk blends, typical of the era (such as Graham Parker and The Rumour), and played by highly experienced and competent musicians like keyboard player and musical director Tim Hinkley.
Yet, especially on the 1979 set, there is a certain lack of the inspiration that would elevate it to greatness, both in the playing and the material. (The band oddly takes its name from one of the worst songs, a tedious ‘good time’ number by Mickey Jupp.) Perhaps at this time there was also a lack of confidence, with nearly half of 1979’s gig consisting of covers - valid when Chapman’s tortured vibrato brings out the full anguish underlying Tim Hardin’s ‘Hang On to a Dream’, rather less so on a merely crowd-pleasing ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’. There’s also one nod to his past, a version of ‘Burlesque’ which introduces a slightly annoying break in the rhythm but is otherwise a worthy reminder of a classic. Of the originals, opener ‘Moth to a Flame’ benefits from a simple, effective hook from sax player Nick Pentelow counterposed to Chapman’s searing roar, while ‘Shape of Things’ builds from a soulful ballad to a strong climax featuring Pentelow and guitarist Geoff Whitehorn.
By 1981, Chapman was on the verge of fully establishing himself in Germany (he was voted the country’s Singer of the Year); reputedly it was this Essen show which confirmed his breakthrough. While Hinkley, Pentelow, Whitehorn and drummer Stretch still remained, the Shortlist had lengthened with the addition of keyboard player Poli Palmer (once of Family), bassist Boz Burrell (during a Bad Company hiatus) and multi-instumentalist Steve Simpson (ex-Meal Ticket). With much more original material, including several co-writes between Chapman, Whitehorn and/or Hinkley, this set feels more like that of a band, and one with greater self-belief too.
Whenever Chapman is singing, even the most pedestrian of these songs (such as ‘Ducking Down’ and a somewhat perfunctory ‘Hey Bo Diddley’)) breaks into urgent life, while the strongest thrill, with a combination of vocals both tender and powerful (‘Prisoner’) and unusual instrumental combinations (the sax, violin and vibraphone of ‘He Was, She Was’). ‘Common Touch’ introduces still another mood, romantic and flecked with a sunny Latin American feel.
It’s amusing to hear the contrast between Chapman’s Midlands accent during introductions and his untrammelled singing, seemingly drawing on reserves of ferocity at will. But it only goes to emphasise his mastery of his instrument.
And this is nowhere better demonstrated than in the final brace of songs, a cover of Willie Dixon’s ‘Help Me’ and a reprise of ‘Prisoner’. Although it’s near the end of a set that, due to scheduling issues, didn’t even begin until the early hours, Chapman sings with all the gusto of the young blues and soul fanatic he once was and all the emotional experience of the mature man. His voice is both imperious and imploring, as Hinkley and Pentelow live out their Booker T and the MGs fantasy. And on ‘Prisoner’ Chapman lets rip with all the righteous fury of someone released after years of being wrongly banged up.
These handsome packages each come with a complete DVD and illustrated booklet. Even those of us who might reasonably feel that in this incarnation Chapman never quite attains the creative heights of Family can’t begrudge such a talent a decent living, when his earlier efforts weren’t properly recognised. Not everything essayed on these albums turns to gold, but neither do Chapman and the Shortlist short-change.