London Souls: reinventing the sixties

Big Apple duo return to live action after a three-year hiatus

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It’s fair to say that the guitar/drums duo thing hasn’t taken off over here the way it has in America. But after the pioneering White Stripes and the ground-breaking Black Keys, the somewhat confusingly named London Souls (they’re from New York) are increasing the possibilities for what some critics have deemed a restrictive format.

Guitarist Tash Neal and drummer Chris St Hilaire have little in common with either of the aforementioned bands. Their penchant is for 60s pop and crunching blues, a style they clearly lay out in the first couple of minutes with a short, sharp cover of The Beatles’ One After 909. They don’t so much cover the song as reinvent it with a vigorous contemporary slant.

It serves as a useful context for their own songs, which typically grow out of strident riffs and fierce but malleable rhythms concealing some surprisingly melodic vocals. Neal may look as if he’s just stepped out from Sly’s Family Stone and St Hilaire may appear like a moonlighting member of Santana, but the best musical reference is to think of two-thirds of the Jimi Hendrix Experience (which, to be frank, is sometimes what you got before Hendrix replaced Noel Redding).

St Hilaire certainly makes an impressive Mitch Mitchell, but he’s more than just a foil for Neal’s heavy guitar and psychedelic solos. He actively instigates many of the rhythm changes that are a key feature of their style, one that gets more pronounced as the set rolls on. He’s no mere back-up singer for Neal either, but an equal partner when it comes to harmonising and vocal interplay.

They play half a dozen songs from the Here Comes The Girls album – of which the stand-out is the chiming groove of When I’m With You – and at least as many more that demonstrate the width of their songwriting seam. But it’s their clever use of covers throughout the set that indicate the depth of their shared passion. These include a slow, grinding version of Shuggie Otis’ Sweet Thang, with the vocals and guitar cooing in unison, and a reworking of William De Vaughn’s obscure Curtis Mayfield-esque one hit wonder Be Thankful For What You Get.

By the end they’re dropping covers into the middle of their own songs. Big Mama Thornton’s Give Me Back My Wig is a meaty filling in the middle of Under Control, and a medley of the Who’s Magic Bus and the Beatles’ Get Back enlivens the encores. By the time they come back to the UK, the word on the London Souls will surely have spread.

Hugh Fielder

Hugh Fielder has been writing about music for 47 years. Actually 58 if you include the essay he wrote about the Rolling Stones in exchange for taking time off school to see them at the Ipswich Gaumont in 1964. He was news editor of Sounds magazine from 1975 to 1992 and editor of Tower Records Top magazine from 1992 to 2001. Since then he has been freelance. He has interviewed the great, the good and the not so good and written books about some of them. His favourite possession is a piece of columnar basalt he brought back from Iceland.