Last time I came to see a band at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen in London’s hipster encrusted Shoreditch, it looked like the kind of place you’d go for the sixth form disco. A red velour curtain formed the backdrop and it had all the excitement of a vegetarian barbeque. I’m pleased to say that this has changed under new ownership. I stepped into the venue on Friday night to find the place was reassuringly black, save for some rotating shards of light emanating from a glitter ball that didn’t know how to quit. I found the place was reassuringly packed too. This was good, because the band I’d gone to see deserve to be playing full houses.
Buck & Evans, or more precisely, Chris Buck, Sally Ann Evans, Dominic Hill and Bob Richards form one of the very best bands that I’ve ever seen. My first time was at the Ramblin’ Man Fair festival in 2015 and it was a love at first hear affair. At their loudest, with a riff-based rock song such as Run Cold, they knock on the door of Led Zeppelin. In Otis Redding’s Dreams To Remember, they’re at their most introspective and soulful and the hairs stand proud on your neck. In a song such as Sunrise, with wandering bass lines, syncopated triplets and an explosive building instrumental outro, they flirt with prog. They might call themselves a ‘Rock ‘n’ Soul’ band, but that barely scratches the surface.
The two musicians who give the band their name really are something else. Evans plays keys and has a voice that could melt icebergs. Her vocals wrap the power of Janis Joplin, the soul of Aretha Franklin and the tenderness of Carole King in one exquisitely delivered package. These are not comparisons that should be given away lightly, and they’re not – Sally Ann really is that good.
Chris Buck meanwhile wields a guitar with control and touch that isn’t necessarily to be expected from a player still in his twenties. In December 2017, he was named ‘Best new guitarist in the world’ by Total Guitar magazine, though this is a misnomer given he’s hardly ‘new’. In 2012 he jammed on stage with Slash at the Birmingham NEC and the top-hatted one later called him a “Fucking awesome guitarist”.
And that’s not to say that underpinning all of this, Hill (bass) and Richards (drums) aren’t utterly brilliant too. Both are a mainstay in session circles and have performed with many bands, most notably in the case of Bob Richards, with Man, Asia and AC/DC. Their presence might be more understated, but their sound most certainly is not.
Tonight’s gig at Hoxton marks Buck & Evans’ first headline public performance in the capital for quite some time. I’ve previously seen them in London venues in front of what could only be described as modest crowds but this evening the place is rammed to capacity. Something has happened in the meantime and that something is their debut album Write A Better Day, a record resourced through crowd funding and a very successful PledgeMusic campaign. This short tour is the first opportunity for the band to play the new material live and the people who got to help make it, get to hear every song from it.
There was no support, Buck & Evans instead choosing to support themselves by starting with a short acoustic set of reworked material. Opening song Screaming normally does just that and whilst it was a contradiction in terms to hear it in laid back, stripped-down form, it was no less enjoyable for it.
Change, a solo piano, vocal and guitar piece from the new record sounded fantastic. During the opening, there was also time for the band to chat to the crowd. For those that didn’t already know, it was an opportunity to appreciate that for all their talents, Buck & Evans are a four piece almost entirely devoid of ego. We learned that at a recent gig at The Cluny in Newcastle, they had to pause proceedings so that Bob Richards could place a bid on Ebay. He won the item you’ll be pleased to know. The band seemed genuinely touched that they had sold the place out but it’s something they’re going to have to get used to; the trajectory is only heading one way.
As time went on, things got louder. The acoustic guitar was exchanged for a series of electrics and the band powered through the new record. Write A Better Day was a long time coming but it was so worth the wait. It’s an album of light and shade and that translated well in the live context with rockers such as Going Home sitting comfortably alongside reflective numbers like Fix You.
One song that didn’t make it to the new record was Impossible, though it’s appeared on previous EP releases and B&E fans know it well. Chris explained that they wanted to rework it with horns but as they didn’t know any horn players they had to shelve the idea. “Just imagine it going ‘parp de parp de parp’ when you listen to it”.
The set closed with two barnstormers. Sinking (probably my favourite Buck & Evans tune, though it’s hard to choose) is an older song that was made over for the album and it sounded fantastic. A classic building rock song, it starts with solo piano and vocal and ends with an incredible three minutes of instrumental bass, drums and organ – plus a guitar solo, the phrasing of which would make David Gilmour look twice. You’ve no idea how you got from the beginning to the end; kind of like a frog being boiled in a pot, only thankfully without any amphibian casualties.
Sunrise is a new song and is another with an epic instrumental ending that seems to get faster and faster as time goes on. Sally Ann wails as Chris hammers the guitar as Dominic thunders the bass as Bob proves why he’s in such demand. It must have been written with ‘set closer’ in mind and accordingly it does – to slack jaws and screaming applause from the assembly.
The band came out and played one more, though fortunately it was an extended version of another classic B&E tune, Ain’t No Moonlight. This seems to get slightly funkier every time I hear it with a clavinet style piano tone that wouldn’t be out of place on a Stevie Wonder record. It’s another with a building instrumental ending (see a trend developing here?) and it gave Chris Buck an opportunity to introduce the band and talk to the audience about the crowd funding and the role many here had played in the creation of the record. There were many pledging opportunities; purchasing advance copies of the album was an obvious one, though you could also have had the band play you a private gig and there was even an opportunity to purchase one of Buck’s guitars. To everyone’s collective delight, it transpired that the new owner of the guitar (whose parents had pledged) was in the front row and the guitar in question was the one he was playing. Buck casually unplugged it and handed it over. It was a really lovely moment that summed up the spirit of this band and the relationship they have with their fanbase.
The queue for merch at the end and to say hello to the band was practically out of the door and Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen were no doubt clock-watching the opportunity to get the glitter ball back up to speed for a night of clubbing in the room. It takes a lot longer to get a Buck & Evans audience out of the venue these days, something that is richly deserved.
Buck & Evans, live at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, 21 September 2018. Review and photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography site at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk