The Charlatans UK
At the Phoenix Concert Theatre
In Toronto on Monday night
Let's, for a moment, discuss this concept of a cult band -- that is to say, a rock band with a cult following. It's a term that actually used to mean something. When, for instance, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band were said to have a cult following in the seventies, the implication was that this was a very difficult band to appreciate, and that only a select few adventurous souls were up to the task.
These days, unfortunately, the term seems to have morphed simply into a reviewer's euphemism for a band with a relatively insignificant audience. "Cult following" now seems simply to mean "tiny following, and for a damn good reason."
Which brings us to the Toronto appearance on Monday of British rock journeymen the Charlatans UK. This outfit is, I think, generally considered to be a band with a cult following, at least as far as North America goes. And while it doesn't really fall easily into either of the categories above, there is at least an argument that could be made for each of them. The band has made enough interesting music over its 17-year, 10-album career to be considered occasionally (if inconsistently) musically meritorious, but after all this time it boasts a local following only big enough to half fill a downtown Toronto club.
The Charlatans' problem (the UK suffix is added in North America to distinguish the band from the seminal San Francisco psychedelic outfit of the mid-sixties) would seem to be that they can't settle on a musical style that's wholly their own. When they started out in the early nineties (well, 1989, actually), they were part and parcel of the "Madchester" scene, which included the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets and others.
But while the Charlatans' mix of neo-psychedelica and dance grooves made them a part of the movement, they were hardly its leading light. Later, they went heavy rock, engendering Rolling Stones comparisons. They've also dabbled in dance and electronica.
And amazingly, the outfit that showed up at The Phoenix Monday night has reconfigured itself once again, this time into a sort of hybrid of Bob Marley, the Clash and the Police. This is not exactly something that music fans out there were clamouring for.
Touring their just-released album Simpatico, the Charlatans UK basically resurrected an era ( Sandinista!-period Clash) that needn't have been resurrected outside of an oldies radio program. The performance was, predictably, a mix of the old and new. Opener NYC (No Need To Stop) set the tone with Clash-like rhythms, skanky, slithery guitar lines (courtesy Mark Collins) and a catchy "ooh ooh ooh" chorus.
For Your Entertainment, which followed, was somewhat lighter, not so much pure reggae as a second-hand take on the Police. Later numbers such as City of the Dead and Road To Paradise seemed more inspired by Bob Marley than the Clash, but singer Tim Burgess is very much the proper Englishman, so they had a reggae-lite feel.
The reaction to this new path, not surprisingly, was patient but tepid. Monday night's crowd really only came to life for the band's better-known numbers, which included the mid-tempo rocker North Country Boy (from 1997's Tellin' Stories) and the harder-edged Jesus Hairdo (from 1994's Up To Our Hips) among others.
Over all, though, this was a pretty ordinary event, short on personality and long on loud but generic-sounding rock 'n' roll -- pretty much what you would expect from a journeyman cult band.
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