Sunday 12 June 2011

The Fugs at Queen Elizabeth Hall - 11 June 2011

The Fugs

Tonight I’m here in a by no means fully occupied Queen Elizabeth Hall to see the Fugs. It’s their first appearance in the UK since 1968. I have only a dim idea of what to expect. And the expectation is largely confounded.

There’s some unfortunate business to get out of the way first. The support act is Lewis Floyd Henry, a guy with a hair like an explosion and a really dreadful line in shouty, incomprehensible blues.

Henry sits with his guitar and a small foot operated drum and growls and hollers tunelessly. At one stage he says that two years ago he was busking outside this building and that he has come a long way since then. He really hasn’t.

The most excruciating moment comes when he drags his two extremely young children onstage to help him out. They quite clearly have no idea at all what is expected of them and you just feel embarrassed for all concerned. The venue wasn’t that full to start with, but there is a marked exodus to the bar.

My pre-knowledge of The Fugs is based almost entirely on their nihilist anthem ‘Nothing’ and the nod they are accorded in Jeffrey Lewis’ epic song “The History of Punk on the Lower East Side.” (An excellent dissection of which can be read here).

What we get tonight is much more interesting.

The main singer and songwriter of the Fugs was Tuli Kupferberg who sadly died last year. Tonight’s show is very much a heartfelt tribute to him by the rest of the band.

The current line up of the Fugs has been together for over twenty five years – which still of course means that they date from a reincarnated band that formed in 1984. The link to 1968 is their leader Ed Sanders.

Sanders is every inch the academic, who clutches his song sheets and delivers the set almost as a lecture. This is entirely appropriate to the material – The Fugs may have been long hairs who railed against the Vietnam War and civil rights abuses in the Sixties, but they were also poets and classicists.

The songwriter who gets more mentions tonight than even Tuli Kupferberg is William Blake. The band perform ‘Auguries of Innocence’ and it is enchanting, the band’s voices mingling in beautiful harmonies. And you thought Fleet Foxes invented this stuff!

Other songs tonight come from the pen of Heraclitus of Ephesus (‘You Can’t Walk In That Same River’ introduced by Sanders in Ancient Greek) and “that dour cat” Matthew Arnold (‘Dover Beach’.)

It’s an elegiac, wistful evening. It yearns for a simpler, purer world and nobler values. It’s very touching and I am touched.

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

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