Review: Augustines live in London

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Billy McCarthy's band returned to London on April 14 for their biggest headline show to date in the capital. Here's what we learned watching them...

Augustines are quietly becoming the best live band around.

Okay, they’re barely household names even in their own households, but you’d be hard pushed right now to find a more electrifying live band than Augustines, as a packed out Koko could testify. The last time they played the capital was just two months ago at intimate North London boozer The Lexington - a sweaty, emotional, gloriously frayed launch for their self-titled second album. Tonight’s venue is ten times the size, but the sweat, emotion and noise from the stage easily fills it.

They’re_ _taking the whole blue-collar rock thing to a different place.

Sure, tracks such as the gritty Chapel Song and Book Of James from 2011’s debut album Rise Ye Sunken Ships! (released when they were still called We Are Augustines) wear the influence of classic American rock on their tattered denim sleeves, especially in their beefed-up live incarnations. But newer songs Cruel City and Walkabout show there’s way more to them than second-hand Springsteenisms – the former staples an enormous chorus to afrobeat rhythms and a one-man brass section while the latter is a beautifully uplifting hymn to wanderlust that could be the greatest ballad U2 never wrote. The Gaslight Anthem they ain’t.

Billy McCarthy knows how to connect with an audience.

Augustines’ frontman used to be a barman, and it shows. A stocky, 36-year-old Irish-American with a fondness for Jamesons, McCarthy’s got the sort of people skills you can’t manufacture – handy when you’re dragging along 1500 people for the ride. Busting out some deliberately terrible James Brown moves or making up a song on the spot about Costa Coffee (“It tastes like faeces…”) is cute; wiping away real tears during Philadelphia (The City Of Brotherly Love) or suddenly appearing on one of the venue’s balconies without a microphone to holler out a raw-throated version of The Avenue is something else completely. Call it empathy, call it heart-on-sleeve honesty, call it not-giving-a-flying-fuck – whatever it is, McCarthy’s got it in spades.

Trombones can rock.

You can pretty much count the number of great rock’n’roll songs to feature trombones on the fingers of no hands. But Augustines are unafraid to deploy their brass-handed secret weapon, Al Hardiman. Granted, the British-born multi-instrumentalist is no slouch on the keyboard, but it’s when he lets rip with his ’bone that things really start to fly. More trombones in rock, please. Though maybe not too many more…

The best way to end a gig? In the middle of the crowd.

As if hollering acapella from the balcony wasn’t enough, Augustines have one more trick up their sleeves. Heading towards curfew time, McCarthy informs the crowd they’ve only got a few more songs to play. What he doesn’t tell us is that they’re going to play them from the centre of the venue, in the middle of the crowd, unplugged and unamplified, with a uproarious version of The Clash’s The Guns Of Brixton (see video below) thrown in for good measure. Cue a finale that’s one part riotous buskalong, one part mass communion. Band of the people? No contest.