Hatfield and the North is a remarkable group whose music remains familiar, resonant and timeless after three decades. That's even more remarkable, considering the band recorded only two albums during its brief existence and never broke through commercially. But in many ways, the British group was the quintessential Canterbury band. Its complex and progressive music was delivered with a self-effacing sense of the absurd that kept it distanced from the bombastic art rock of many of its contemporaries.
It was great news when Hatwise Choice: Archive Recordings 1973-1975, Volume 1, a collection of BBC radio and live recordings, was released in 2005. While its two studio releases were augmented with assorted Canterbury friends, Hatwise Choice presented Hatfield as a stripped-down four-piece unit that was completely capable of fleshing the music out and was none the less for itstronger, in fact, in many cases. Hattitude: Volume 2 is defined by more consistent sound quality, thanks to keyboardist Dave Stewart's autumn 2005 discovery of a box full of reel-to-reel live recordings.
There's little in the way of new material here, and there's considerable overlap with Hatwise Choice. Still, Hattitude stands on its own, thanks to the group's energy and spontaneity, and drummer Pip Pyle's outstanding editing work. Pyle, who tragically passed away earlier this summer, took material from fourteen different live and BBC radio dates, creating a largely continuous hour-long set that's the next best thing to having been there. Once again Hatfield plays "Name That Tune" by retitling familiar songs with new titles that reference the originals only obliquely, if at all.
Hatfield in concert was every bit an improvising band, often significantly reshaping its studio material. Guitarist Phil Miller's "Aigrette" (here titled "The Crest") is expanded to include a longer vocal by bassist Richard Sinclair and a definitive solo by Stewart that begins on electric piano and ends powerfully on his signature tone generator. Sinclair's metrically mind-boggling "Rifferama" (here "Pink & Green Machine") is reduced to less than two minutes, but is as potentand hilariousas ever.
The majority of the music is culled from Hatfield's eponymous 1973 Virgin debut, though there are small tastes of material from 1975's The Rotter's Club, including the finale to Stewart's epic "Mumps" ("One of Wilde's"), and the segue from Pyle's "Fitter Stoke Has a Bath" ("Drowning Reprise") into Sinclair's bittersweet "Didn't Matter Anyway" ("Goodbye for Now"). Miller sounds as idiosyncratic as ever, while Pyle delivers a richer blend of elegance and power than on his later, more jazz-centric efforts. Sinclair remains an underappreciated but highly imaginative bassist, while Stewart's inventive harmonic approach renders criminal his longstanding moratorium on performing this kind of music.
That there's enough material left for a third volume is great news, and hopefully it will greater emphasize songs from The Rotter's Club. In the meantime Hattitude is a treasure trove that's even better than Hatwise Choice and should continue to generate new interest in this too-often overlooked but distinctively innovative band.
Personnel: Phil Miller: guitar; Pip Pyle: drums, percussion, sheep noise; Richard Sinclair: bass, vocals; Dave Stewart: keyboards, tone generators.