"It's been two weeks of f***ing hell. And that's been for you, f***rs!". This is how vocalist Roger "Chappo" Chapman, in his engaging Leicester accent, summarises the hard work behind this most unexpected of reunions, namely Family finally getting back together after 40 years – and for two nights only – at London's intimate Shepherd's Bush Empire venue.
It's one of those remarkable events that sometimes pass under the press and TV radar, but which serious followers and music fans cannot afford to miss. That's particularly true if we remember that Family were one of the best British groups to emerge in the late Sixties and early Seventies, exerting a strong influence for more durable and commercially successful bands like Genesis and Jethro Tull. And yet Family achieved something that Genesis and Jethro Tull never did: they were immortalised (as "Relation") in Jenny Fabian's cult 1970 novel "Groupie".
Family were, in the words of one of their own songs, a "strange band", born out of solid r&b roots, yet willing and able to take daring and unpredictable routes during the heady days of the so-called "progressive” era.
If the truth be told, the two London gigs aren’t a fully fledged reunion. OK, there’s “Chappo”, a 70 year-old who doesn't seem to feel his age at all, and drummer Rob Townsend, but guitarist John "Charlie" Whitney, co-writer of most their songs, is conspicously absent: it’s a bit like the Stones getting back together, but without Keith Richards. Two other members, multi-instrumentalist Poli Palmer and guitarist Jim Cregan (who served in the later Family as a bass player), are also there, but in order to recreate the old magic they’ve had to call on the services of at least nine musicians, including five "in-laws" - among them guitarist Geoff Whitehorn of Procol Harum fame, and Manfred Mann's Earth Band drummer John Lingwood.
The mood of the show is warm and friendly. This is established from the very start when Leicester City legend, former playboy, Elvis fan and long-standing Family cohort, Frank Worthington, comes onstage to introduce the band. His almost childish enthusiasm is shared by the 2,000 strong audience and morphs in excited amazement when a liquid and vaguely psychedelic introduction to "Top Of The Hill" tells us that the next one hour and 40 minutes (pretty much the lenght of a Leicester City match, including time for a quick cup of tea at half-time) are going to be an exhibition of musical prowess. As much as the “old” Family were furious and wild, the new version has a more relaxed style, yet it still sounds different from any other combo. Chapman's bleating vibrato and tambourine-smashing idiot dancing are long gone, yet the frontman still has a drive, an energy and a voice that many rock singers of his generation would die for. He steers the band through its varied catalogue (although the first album "Music In A Doll's House" is, like Charlie Whitney, conspicuous by its absence), shifting and morphing from the hard folk of old gems"Drowned In Wine" and "Hung Up Down" to the funk blues of "Part Of The Load", from the jazzy instrumental "Crinkly Grin" to the country&western-ish "No Mule's Fool", drunken pub singalongs such as "Sat'dy Barfly" to the hypnotic, medieval litany of "Burning Bridges".
It's a sound that comes from the past, yet it is refreshing nonetheless, a sort of musical Esperanto that still enthralls in this new, smoother rendition. Jack of all trades Nick Payn brightens up the new arrangements with his flute, sax and harmonica, while Palmer deftly hits his trademark vibraphone, as Cregan moves from an acoustic guitar to a vintage double-neck electric, and Whitehorn unleashes solos and riffs that are perhaps a bit too bluesy and loud in comparison to Whitney's more controlled tone and style. Charlie, "now in Greece eating kebabs and strumming a bouzoki", is repeatedly mentioned over the course of the evening by Chapman, who warmly dedicates Between blue and me" (the epitome of Family music's light and shade, subtlety and ferocious attitude) to his old pal. Other past band members, both living and dead, are duly remembered before the show comes to a close.
Chapman had promised a few surprises in the set list, but he can't stay away from the crowd pleasers that the audience has come here to listen to: the syncopated and dirty blues of "Burlesque" (Family's best answer to those who compare them to politer and better behaved alumni of prog rock), the hit single "In my own time", the band’s anthem "The weaver's answer" and the gorgeous folk ditty "My friend the sun", whose classic lines and refrain morph into a choral singalong. Chapman still finds one last drop of energy deep in his throat to deliver the r&b swagger of "Sweet Desiree" and then it's all over in a mood of celebration and heartfelt feelings. “That's it,” Chappo reiterates from the stage, shutting the door on the prospect of more gigs. But with such an enthusiastic response and a remastering programme peaking with the release of a monumental, 14-Cd box set, who would want to bet the farm on that actually being the case?
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