Words by Ed King / Pics by Rob Hadley (Indie Images)
I have a problem with ‘thank you’.
When I write something – a review, a feature or an opinion piece, it’s autonomous. To thank me for it implies I did something supportive, or helpful, or (god forbid) kind. I didn’t. I don’t. Writing is what I do. I often wish is wasn’t. And should you find yourself the subject of my (often acerbic) pen you’ve done something to deserve it; however the end critique turns out, you’ve earned your words.
On Monday I reviewed The Hungry Ghosts’ debut EP, Blood Red Songs. Surmised in ten words or less: Ferocious. Superb. Dark. Ball grabbing. One track too short. I received a number of ‘thanks you’s.
But I like the band; they swagger, they strut, they could cut you with razors, and their Redditch born black magic southern swamp blues is perfectly dangerous.
The Hungry Ghosts are (and I’m not the only one to say this) “a fu*king rock band”, and if Blood Red Songs is anything to go by they’ll continue to be until we all choke on stories of “when I first saw them…” Its only flaw was the track listing – the four song debut leaving you with a psychedelic lullaby instead of a kick to the groin. Strike, dear mistress.
Now it’s Wednesday and I’m at The Sunflower Lounge, to see said Ghosts launch said EP in front of a strong home grown crowd. The room is full, the stairs are full, there are several other bands in the audience, and I’ve already upset someone by helping her not to knock over my cider.
It’s cramped and furtive; the two support slots dutifully filled by Apathy and The Terror Watts – taking us from the Metallicaesque shoegaze of the former, to the pop fueled DIY of the later. And if you see either band on a bill it would be worth looking further.
The Sunflower Lounge is always dark, but tonight extra midnight red bathes the small stage as The Hungry Ghosts take root. Scrubbed, oiled and polished, with new drummer Mike Conroy in tow, the four piece start with the cheeky bass riff of ‘Beetle Boots’ – dancing through the room like Scooby Doo with a switchblade.
Joe Joseph leans in and looks up over his mic stand, all dark curls and menace; rumbling vocals of dangerous tales I can’t quite distinguish. A low drawl jumps to a frayed scream, whilst Jodie Lawrence and Billy Ollis flank him with self assured pouts and head thrusts. Flashes of teeth, red and silver jump off stage; it’s an entrance Jack Nicholson would be proud of.
Straight into ‘Father Snake Moan’, with the metaphor chorus I have yet to fully unpick, Joe Joseph commands us all forward – filling the invisible void so many small venues create. Rolling drums and appropriate feedback spill into the now tighter crowd, before Joseph tails it into the audience for what will not be the only time tonight.
The molasses of ‘Love Song’ follows, with the B-Side of The Hungry Ghost’s debut single bringing Lawrence and Joseph’s vocals together like a stolen kiss – before the front man is back off stage and into the crowd.
I’ve seen this in their sets before, a dance around the candid and intimate, yet still somewhere on the cusp of violence. You believe it too; a raw and rehearsed performance celebrating the intimacy of these people on stage. You can practice this stuff but you can’t make it up, and it’s precisely these points that warrant “a fu*king rock band.”
The punchy dark march of ‘Hares on the Mountain’ signs its A side name across the room, almost bitch slapping the front row, as Joe Joseph takes his place back on stage and cranes his eyes back over the crowd. Who in turn start to bubble. I scrawl the word ‘ferocious’ into my notebook (for neither the first nor last time with this band) before ‘The Hungry Ghost Blues’ washes through the room leaving little imprint. ‘I lose something. I say something to the person next to me. It ends’ is written on the line below.
There’s a small break, like just before the second time you jump into water, and the shoulders of the room seem to drop slightly as the band tunes in between tracks. In silence. The stage lights seem momentarily brighter whilst the audience chats away to itself; ‘INTERMISSION’ could be written in light bulb letters across a long velvet curtain somewhere. Tonight’s opening triptych has been a powerful beginning, even domineering at points, but as a small divide perches on the edge of the stage, its feet not quite yet touching the floor, I write ‘…say anything’.
And they do, musically, as ‘Super King King’ struts its predatory blues off stage next – prompting a period of deep breaths, steel-eyed stares and mic stand stroking that could land you in court. It’s a ferocious track (…told you) a working museum of the band’s influences and admirations, and one that’s fast becoming my favourite in a Hungry Ghosts’ set. On the EP it sounds superb; back to your seats people.
We slide full swing into the Velvets-esque riffs of ‘Death Rattle Blues’, another track from the Blood Red Songs EP, as the room builds in an orchestrated crescendo. The crowd dances; I drum my fingers against the railings, a few steps down from where I stood the first time, and contemplate throwing things from the stairs. Me, a glass, the man to my right. Something. Anything. Again, “a fu*king rock band”.
By this point Billy Ollis and Joe Joseph are huddled together in a twist of guitars, as the front man’s vocals jump from low drawl to scream. I struggle more and more with the frayed lyrics; it’s an honest display, but I want to hear these words and not just witness their delivery.
And the final track of the main set brings this dichotomy to the forefront, as Joe Joseph lays down his guitar to focus on prose for ‘The Catcher’ – with its semi spoken introduction, leading to almost fetal position screaming from the floor of the stage.
Then somewhere, somehow, Joseph is lifted up by the crowd; fulfilling the main set held aloft by his audience, playing his guitar horizontally as he is passed from one end of the room to the other. This wasn’t rehearsed yet manages to occur with almost theatrical precision; one of those moments.
The demanded encore is ‘The Hungry Ghosts Say Hello’ – a seemingly scone & tea titled track, that is, in reality, a mosh pit and explosion of strobe light. An awesome end, leaving a palpable and lingering taste that would have done well on the EP. Perhaps not this track, but this ending.
Joe Joseph, with no windows to jump or throw something out of – trapped in the limited capacity of the subterranean Sunflower, walks through the Red Sea crowd and out the back door. And for the last time tonight… “a fu*king rock band”.
We file slowly, languidly upstairs, with most of the room deciding it would be safer to just stay for a drink. No one’s going home straight away. The Hungry Ghosts, their “job done”, are dutifully packing their gear into the van and cracking on with the business of post performance. Joe Joseph seems, as always, genuine and appreciative that anyone’s responding at all.
I extend a garrulous invitation to help – not knowing anything about kit or stage that would be in anyway useful, but it’s all I can really think of to say. “…you’ll have to wait until I publish it. But, you know… blimey. Job done I think Joe” and I extend a pat between the shoulder blades as both deflection and full stop.
The Hungry Ghosts must know it’s been a good gig tonight, I think; there will be personal assessments, sure, and mistakes only a creator will see. But the crowd response was undeniable. A happy elephant stomps through this room.
I backtrack, my drunk and guarded rhetoric still determined not to give away parts of my review (perhaps that one cider should have been sacrificed to the floor) and think quick for a suitably safe response.
“I mean, that was, well… Thank you for tonight.”
The Hungry Ghosts’ debut Blood Red Songs EP is out now – available to by online & from Setting Son Records. For more on The Hungry Ghosts, www.thehungryghosts.co.uk
For more from The Sunflower Lounge, visit www.thesunflowerlounge.com