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Block and Roll and All That Jazz

By Published: September 29, 2012
Both Atzmon and the previous saxophonist, Payne, play free form outside the band and Atzmon will intersperse it into songs whenever he can—much to the delight and sometimes amusement of both band members and the audience. Payne makes occasional returns to the band and his playing is different, in that Atzmon relies on technical detail and Eastern influences, whilst Payne is more of a free player in spirit and has a more musical touch, but both are excellent. Personnel mean a lot to the audience and many fans were delighted when Payne made a rare appearance last year at a pre-35th anniversary celebration 3 night residency at the Monto Water Rats in Kings Cross, London.

According to the group's manager, Jankel (who wrote or co-wrote much of the material) is less concerned about who plays his songs as to the fact they are being played, but personnel is important to fans, and those who remember those brief chart-riding days of the late 1970s love it when Payne returns to the fold because it makes the lineup as original as it can be. Payne remains committed to free form music and indeed, gave me a helping email or two when I was first involved in writing about free form developments. Their manager says of Payne, that he cannot be considered a band member now because is location dictates otherwise ans he has only played 7 or 8 gigs with them in recent years. Payne's attitude to the band is hard to fathom: "Lee and The Blockheads do their thing, I do mine and occassionally I play with them." He remains a popular prodigal son for the band and audience and in person is affable, self contained and knowledgeable on early free jazz influences.

Gallagher has the look of a younger Colonel Sanders, a fact hugely played on by Phil Jupitus when he made a tour, five years ago, as guest vocalist with the band to celebrate its thirtieth year. He has an utterly charming disposition and a smile which lights up his face. After a gig, he chats incessantly. At one gig I found him beside me and realized he had been probably speaking for about five minutes but, after a brief chat earlier, I had not been listening. He did not mind and would have continued chatting still, had I not been called away. A lovely guy and one of those people you genuinely feel happier for meeting.

When The Blockheads are into the music, you experience a full frontal attack of British jazz-rock at its best. There is energy, power and a professionalism that only comes from this much experience gathered together on one stage. After 35 years, you might think the group would lose its groove for some of the songs, but not a chance. At one gig, where Payne had joined the band, he finished a double sax solo and toasted the audience with Evian. He was grinning madly, obviously pleased with himself. Then he decided to spray water across the crowd. Given the lungs behind it, that water went a long way. Later, Payne joined the post-gig gathering and said, sheepishly almost, that he often gets carried away onstage (hence the water), and remembered the time he lost a treasured jacket at a gig where he got so carried away he threw it into the crowd. He has, apparently, lost a few things over the years, most notably a Westwood and McLaren jacket complete with badges and memorabilia—and lots of shades (and given some as well).

The people who come to a Blockhead gig are mixed, which shows the wide appeal the band still has. At one I attended I came across fathers and sons, groups of women and groups of men; there was Glen and his pal from Australia; two couples from Sligo, Ireland; and people from all over the UK far and near. There were able and disabled, lads of 19 and men of 60-plus, those who have followed the band since the 1970s and newcomers.

With Dury, The Blockheads were given the backing role but now the group are on their own and doing just fine. The group is bringing their unique sound and, more importantly, a touch of free form playing always in there somewhere, to the rest of the world. These are The Blockheads of today. If you love jazz, you will enjoy a Blockheads gig; if you love rock, you will enjoy a Blockheads gig; and if you love punk, you will enjoy a Blockheads gig. The Blockheads don't' fit a pop market nor do they fit the rock market; but jazz people know good jazz-based sounds when they hear them. And if ever you are at a gig and Hussey meanders, disheveled and shuffling, across the stage, takes the mike and says, "Good evening, we are The Blockheads," start listening and enjoy.

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