It’s 20 years since Hot Water Music first began to wire taut, complicated jazz rhythms into rasping punk-rock and post hardcore. Tonight, their legacy flickers once more in Brighton.
Though the band’s singer, Chuck Ragan, is here on solo business, he won’t be allowed to leave the stage without revisiting his main band’s back catalogue. So it is, towards the end of a hot and steamy night, he bows to the pressure of an audience who have been yelling requests all night. As he airs God Deciding, a room which had been swaying, stomping, sweating and steaming moments earlier stops dead in its tracks, listens in pin-drop silence, and the man in the spotlight roars over an acoustic. It’s quite a moment.
Though Ragan is happy enough to revisit his past, tonight is chiefly for the Townes Van Zandt-ish acoustic country in which he deals in his solo life. He sings it in a voice so gruff it’s as if his lyrics barroom brawl in his throat before staggering into the room. He warms as the night goes on, but still it’s the gravelly rasp of the world’s weariest preacher in a broken down pulpit – all resignation and experience. He’s joined onstage by fiddle, double bass, slide guitar and drums, and his solo songs come tinged with the sort of alt. country that speaks of desert highways and long, lonely nights in bus stations – a blue collar yearning coupled with tired acquiescence.
There’s a scrappy, pick-up band feel tonight, a looseness that somehow adds authority. His band, The Camaraderie, are not always tight, nor does Ragan’s growl always hit its notes, but it all feels right and that’s more important. They’re held together by the solid thump of his rhythm section, whose constant thrum keeps the crowd a heartbeat away from putting hands together and stamping feet on pulsing floorboards.
Rotterdam, a paired down love song, waxes and wanes with Ragan’s regret as he sings of a lover who is never quite in the same place as him. Let It Rain rides a pure hoedown stomp, while Revved – a thrusting new song accented by slide licks – picks up the pace and is given extra muscle by Northcote’s Matt Gould, a new addition to the Xtra Mile stable who shone on tonight’s undercard. Opening support act Billy The Kid helps sing Non Typical, while the crowd manfully attempt to out-gruff Ragan on Nothing Left To Prove and The Boat, before conceding defeat. The standout, however, is Right As Rain, a sparse waltz-time ballad in which violin, bass and pedal-steel all take solos, the latter dripping notes like warm raindrops across the crowd.
As wonderful a moment as that is, some songs fall by the wayside. Ragan fires out his tunes, sometimes barely pausing before starting another. But musically, they broadly do the same thing – that same country stomp, that same heart and soul. Meanwhile Ragan’s roar is never going to find immediate melodies. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, because it’s easy to fall into his world of heartbreak, the road, and grizzled experience. And once the charisma has drawn you in, it’s hard to pull away.