It takes maybe 10 minutes for Vintage Trouble to win over the unwinnable. The Stade De France in the northern suburbs of Paris is packed to le gills with 70,000 people here to see AC/DC, every single one of whom is sporting either a T-shirt bearing the name of tonight’s headliners, a pair of flashing red Angus Young-style devil horns, or – in most cases – both.
Vintage Trouble aren’t stupid. They know there are partisan audiences and then there are AC/DC audiences. Lesser bands have been chewed up and spat out simply for the crime of not being loud enough, not being bolshy enough or just not being AC/DC themselves. The fact that the LA group eschew three chord boogie in favour of soul-infused rock’n’roll and cut-off denim for elegantly tailored red suits that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a 60s soul man (singer Ty Taylor) and something approximating 19th century riverboat gambler chic (guitarist Nalle Colt, bassist Rick Barrio Dill and drummer Richard Danielson) doesn’t help their odds.
“The main thing when you’re a support act,” Taylor had said a few hours earlier, “is that you have 40 minutes to play but five minutes to get the audience’s attention. These are people who would rather go out and buy a beer and a T-shirt. You’ve gotta go out and you’ve gotta hit it as hard as you can.”
On the vast AC/DC stage, Vintage Trouble get busy walking the walk. As they burn through songs from 2011’s debut album, The Bomb Shelter Sessions, and the forthcoming follow-up, 1 Hopeful Rd., the crowd’s mood rapidly shifts from Gallic indifference through growing curiousity to out-and-out admiration.
Part of it is down to Taylor himself. A one-man charisma hurricane, he struts, dances, hollers and croons his way through the set. But there’s another, more fundamental reason. Look past the band’s retro stylings, and you’ll see they’re coming at things from the same place as Angus Young and co: old R&B, original rock’n’roll, true soul music. The building blocks of music. Vintage Trouble know it.
More importantly for them, 70,000 AC/DC fans know it. By the time Taylor walks to the end of the headliners’ ego ramp and launches himself into the expectant arms of the audience, they’ve definitely won. If we’re dishing out points for cool, that’s a hundred for Vintage Trouble right there.
Earlier, Taylor had pondered aloud why his band do what they do. “I’d say we’re making music because it’s what we’re put on this earth to do,” he said with the confidence of a welterweight boxing champ. “We’re here to make people open up to things. To make people feel more, whether that’s dancing or laughing or crying or becoming more angry or less angry or more curious. It’s about making people feel.”
Like I said, Vintage Trouble aren’t stupid.
Every so often, you come face to face with something that punches a hole in the illusory glamour of rock’n’roll. Today, it’s Vintage Trouble’s ‘accomodation’, which consists of a tourbus – albeit a fairly luxurious one as far as these things go – parked deep in the concrete bowels of the Stade De France. The air of claustrophobia is deepend by the fact that there’s another tourbus parked a few feet away. “That’s just for my shoes,” deadpans Taylor.
It’s a jarringly industrial setting for a band who place such stock in authenticity. They’ve been here for a few days now – tonight’s show is the second of two at this venue, and the ninth as opening act on a tour that will eventually take them through to the middle of September. It’s the sort of scenario that takes its toll on not just the soul, but the wardrobe too. Drummer Richard Danielson, a man who bears more than a passing resemblance to Lord Of The Rings actor Viggo Mortenson, has a tip for sartorial survival.
“Vodka in a spray bottle with a little lavender oil,” says Danielson. “The vodka kills the germs, the lavender will make it smell nice.” Bassist Rick Barrio Dill has a less fancy solution: “Febreze. Lots of Febreze.”
It’s a small sacrifice to make. The four years that have elapsed since Vintage Trouble released The Bomb Shelter Sessions (and subsequently bagged a Classic Rock award for Best New Band) have been a steady but sure upward curve. For a band who have yet to have a hit single, their contact list is mightily impressive: they’re possibly the only band to have played with Brian May (the Queen guitarist is a longtime champion), The Who (Pete Townshend is a fan) and pop diva Paloma Faith (Taylor is a friend).
When it comes to marquee names, Don Was doesn’t have quite the same clout but he could well play the most pivotal role of all in Vintage Trouble’s career. The co-founder of 80s art-pop mavericks-turned-superstar producer was appointed president of the recently revived – and wholly revered – jazz label Blue Note Records. As his first signing, Vintage Trouble are Blue Note’s flagship act.
“Don came down to see us at [LA venue] the El Rey, and there was a line right around the block,” says Nalle Colt, an expat Swede who has lived in California for 25 or so years. “Here was a band with no song on the radio, who for two hours was able to keep the crowd going. He was, like, ‘What you guys are doing, I want in.’”
Was’s role as the band’s cornerman extended to producing their new album, 1 Hopeful Rd. The title comes from Taylor’s mother and the record is shot through with an optimism that’s scarce today.
“She would say that the road is always hopeful, that you have to endure,” says the singer. “Rather than it literally be a road, we decided to make it an address. Like, this is the place you go when you feel like your hope is being darkened. And it reminds us because we get a little sketchy ourselves sometimes too.”
Even offstage, Taylor is ‘on’. Sitting in the front of the tourbus, he’s a vortex of energy. The singer wasn’t born on a stage – not quite. But he was the quintessential showbiz kid. At 14 months old, he was modelling Pampers nappies in a US TV ad (“My butt is right out there on YouTube”). By eight, he was in his first Broadway show. At 11, he made an appearance on The Cosby Show. “I was making as much money as anyone did in my family at that point,” he says.
His background is an odd mix of the theatre and rock’n’roll. He’s appeared in such staples as Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Grease and, inevitably, We Will Rock You. “Everything I do, all the things that separate me from most singers, without theatre I would not have those,” he says. “The endurance, the movement, the breathing, the physical shit, the technique for singing. Literally everything apart from the amount of soul I try to dig out of my performances comes from that.”
At the same time as he was treading the boards, Taylor passed through a series of bands, the most high-profile of which was Dakota Moon, who he describes as “an acoustic soul thing, kind of a Black Eagles”. In the noughties, he appeared on reality TV show Rock Star: INXS as one of the hopefuls in the running to replace the late Michael Hutchence (YouTube footage from the time shows him sporting an impressive mohican and the sort of distressed denim that all the vodka-and-lavender spray in the world couldn’t save). The theatre began to take a backseat. By the time Vintage Trouble came together in 2011, Taylor had left the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd behind him.
“I knew I had to leave theatre because I didn’t want to do anything but sing my own words and my own songs,” he says. “I got to a place where I thought, ‘Fuck it – my performances don’t feel like theatre performances any more.’ I wanted to be wilder and wilder and wilder. I wanted to sing soul music, but make it harder, not softer.”All four members of Vintage Trouble use the word “soul” regularly. It’s a handy peg on which to hang at least part of what the band do. But then its been bandied around for so long by so many people that its become void of meaning. Here’s the question: what is soul?
“It’s so funny,” says Taylor, “there’s a recording of a Sam Cooke radio interview, and somebody asks him that very question. And he goes [unleashing a full-force holler]: ‘YAYYAYYAYAYYYEAYYEAHYEAHYEAH.’”
He stares me straight in the eye and a grin slides across his face. “Now, since this isn’t a radio interview, and since you can’t spell that, I’ll put it like this. They say that the only reason song is necessary is when life elevates itself beyond spoken word. And to me, soul is being the most open vessel you can be when music is being siphoned through us. It’s the absence of head. It’s pure body rattle, unbridled energy from inside you that’s coming out in the form of music, without calculation.”
You can hear that soul on Vintage Trouble’s two albums. But you can actually see it onstage. Tonight, in front of a potentially unfriendly audience, The Hardest Working Band In Showbusiness (Right Now) steamroller any residual suspicions over what they’re doing, or its authenticity. Retro? Yes, sometimes shamelessly so. But also timeless in the best possible way.
“Life happens in 20 year cycles,” Ty Taylor had said earlier, from his temporary HQ aboard his band’s subterranean tourbus. “But there’s certain forms of music that have never stopped – rock’n’roll, pure rhythm’n’blues and soul. To be part of that spine of music is what’s important, not to be part of things that come and go.”