Walking through the doors of Bulldog Alley on February 28th was like stepping through a time machine. The normally sparse and bland space was transformed by WGTB into something resembling a late 1950s school dance for their 2014 Spring Concert. All of the essential elements were there: a drink/snack table at the rear, men and women clad in dresses and blazers, streamers hanging from the ceiling, and people actually dancing. While the station certainly deserves credit for helping to set the mood, the fuel for this time warp came in the form of headliner Nick Waterhouse and his 50s revivalism.
Mr. Waterhouse stands as something of a fusion of two of rock-and-roll’s early stars: Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. In image and style, he carries himself like Mr. Holly, including signature black-rim spectacles. In terms of guitar choice—Gibson ES-335—and playing style and tone, he is very much of the Chuck Berry school. Mr. Waterhouse clearly demonstrated the fruits of his learning by unleashing a number of brief, fiery, punching solos over the duration of his set.
While Waterhouse himself stood as a spitting image of rock and roll’s early legacy, his backing band, The Tarots, brought the mood even further into the original spirit of rock and roll dances. The make-up of the Tarots—bass, keyboards, percussion, baritone saxophone and secondary vocalist—allows the group to recreate many of the essential sounds of rock music in the 50s and 60s. With Mr. Waterhouse’s compositions spanning these periods, the Tarots are able to create any sound which he might want to draw on; as a painter drawing from a wide pallet. The Baritone sax evoked the solos on Little Richard’s earliest recordings, and the vintage keyboards allowed for fluid channeling of Ray Manzarek’s evocative style in The Doors. Performances of songs like “Holly” and “Ain’t There Something Money Can Buy,” both from Mr. Waterhouse’s new LP Holly, demonstrated the group’s ability to work while still shining as individual performers. As the rhythm section swung behind Mr. Waterhouse’s own swaying figure, the sax and guitar together delivered powerful, short punches that created a sort of call and response between the vocals. Later, during “Ain’t There Something” the keyboards took the lead in creating the grooving riff over which the rest of the Tarots built the tongue-in-cheek tune. The sax played a notable role here as well, blowing a deep, near-guttural solo that contrasted well with Waterhouse’s fiery, quick guitar lines.
Even more interesting than these songs though, were the times when Mr. Waterhouse appeared to be exploring the ethnic influences on rock music. Looking at rock and roll’s origins, and the complex racial and social politics tied to it, it is easy to see the music as a dialogue (or exploitation, depending on the writer) between black and white musicians. However, as tracks like “Bo Diddley” and “La Bamba” remind us, rock and roll is built on Latin rhythms in addition to the traditional African-American ones. Through their percussionist, Waterhouse and the Tarots seemed determined to include the Latin influences in their task of updating the rock and roll sound. This was particularly noticeable in the subtly dark, picturesque “Sleeping Pills,” where the Tarots brought these rhythms to the forefront as the percussion began the tune with an hypnotic, conga beat.
Mr. Waterhouse and I discussed this influence after the performance. While admitting that the link to Latin heritage in rock-and-roll was not conscious on his part, he nevertheless revealed a long history with Latin-influenced music. Growing up in southern California, Waterhouse was exposed to Latin music throughout his upbringing, so felt it just as an “ingrained” part of his musical identity. Mr. Waterhouse also cited being a fan of Lamia, a Latin/Soul record label that influenced his writing as well.
Nick Waterhouse’s performance at Bulldog Alley was a breath of fresh air in many regards. Chief amongst these was the fact that it was incredible to see WGTB recreate the aura of a lost era, when “twerking” was beyond the realm of possibilities. But Mr. Waterhouse and his band were not there to regurgitate the music of the past. Instead they evoked it within a more modern framework. Nick Waterhouse is no nostalgia act, but a dynamic shaman of the rich history of rock-and-roll music. Any chance to see this guru is one worth taking.
- Content originally published on this site
Photo credit to Kirill Makarenko