Down a side street off Bethnal Green Road sits the unassuming venue of Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. There’s a silhouette of a rocking horse in the first floor window and stencilled onto its wall outside is Banksy’s ‘Yellow Line Flower Painter’. Inside, upstairs, a huge light-bulb encrusted heart adorns the stage, there’s a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, the carpet’s true colours are long gone, and little red lamps line the walls. The place is full of character, it’s unforgettable, and so is Curtis Harding tonight (March 11). He’s in town to play some songs off his dazzling debut album Soul Power, which was one of our best albums of 2014.
The propulsive drums of “Next Time” get proceedings underway, just as they do on the album, but as Harding starts singing, his voice, what should be crisply resounding through the room is first completely unheard, and then comes through painfully distorted. Strangely, not much is being done during the performance to fix the issue, the sinking of hearts more audible in the crowd than any vocals are. Once the song comes to an end, someone from the crowd pipes up and tells Harding he sounds like you-know-what. There’s a bit of banter back and forth, and eventually a conclusion is reached to keep rollin’ on, a decision greeted by cheers from the crowd. The alternative – to just ‘stop playing’ – isn’t an option.
What is so immersing on Soul Power is the effortless way that Harding drifts between genres like soul, gospel and blues-rock, and the electric energy he does it with. On stage he and his band ooze an utter coolness as they move from the convulsive twang of “Surf“, to the slinky rumble of “The Drive“, and on to the snarling drawl of “Drive My Car“. Somehow, here, the shades-wearing singer makes the distorted mic sound tasty as hell.
On the quieter tracks in the set, like the swaying “Castaway” and the shimmering “Beautiful People“, and the glossy disco-indebted “Heaven’s On The Other Side“, portions of Harding’s stunning vocals come through, the singer wrestling through the bad sound. On one occasion however, during the stripped back surprise cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine“, his vocals are on full display, luckily, because it’s an awesome spectacle. It might be a good thing he isn’t fully heard for most of the set; everyone packed into the small room would’ve been floored otherwise.
To round things off, Harding dedicates “Keep On Shining” to all the cool people out tonight, the 99% that didn’t moan about the sound and adds there’s always that 1%. It’s his final jab to a night that might not have been the easiest for him as a performer, but he undoubtedly came out victorious. A cover of “California Dreamin’” is the final encore, where each member of his excellent band are given a chance to solo and shine, and the timeless ‘60s classic is an apt send-off for an artist who’s full of talent, full of spark, and creating his own timeless sound.
Words by Oli Kuscher