Now, this is rather an interesting one and no mistake. I must confess that Cumbrian band Hardwicke Circus were a new name to me, but the premise of this live album is a quite unusual one. Live albums may be a common occurrence, but less so when they are recorded in a prison. Outside of Johnny Cash, there aren’t a whole long list of examples which occur to me, and even less so when the album in question is sourced from a whole UK tour of prisons! The notes about the recording tell some interesting stories as well, including of one inmate who had withdrawn into his shell so completely that all efforts to make him speak had failed, until he attended a Hardwicke Circus show, and got up to deliver a great vocal on Born Under A Bad Sign – following which the dam had apparently burst, and he opened up. Sadly that particular cathartic moment isn’t on here, but there are plenty of other pleasures in store.
Hardwicke Circus are listed as ‘aka The Hardwickes’ here, and I feel that’s a mistake – sorry guys, Hardwicke Circus is much cooler. It didn’t work when The J Geils Band tried being just ‘Geils’ or when Eddie And The Hot Rods tried simply ‘The Rods’ – stick to the full thing. Still, what’s in a name anyway I guess, and whatever they go by they are a good night out from the evidence on display here. True, there’s nothing breaking any new ground or forging new directions here, but there isn’t meant to be. What you get with these young Cumbrians is a good, lively dose of rock-and-soul based bluesy energy. At times it evokes Van Morrison when he was still worth listening to (which dates me somewhat!), at other times it’s reminiscent of The Jam, especially in their later The Gift phase. They have a way with a cover as well, with Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited being given a cracking makeover (accompanied by a prison guard on guitar incidentally), and on a related note the closing, anthemic performance of The Weight, the classic from Dylan’s erstwhile mates The Band. Their own material is by and large pretty impressive itself as well, certainly enough that it holds its end up and fails to get outshone by the more celebrated and well-known stuff, which is always a good litmus test. There is one appearance from an inmate, on When The Chips Are Down, with a guy called Nazim offering a rap-like vocal which works extremely well. It’s actually a shame more of these guest appearances aren’t captured than the two on here, as they really offer something different.
One gets the impression that the band don’t take themselves too seriously either, which is surely the perfect approach in these surroundings. I was a little perplexed by the thanks given to people ‘for coming out tonight’ – maybe it refers to leaving their cells, (though given the choice between a cell and a gig I might even give Aerosmith a go), but if he’s actually cracking a joke about the subject in a room full of inmates then the guy must possess stones that could anchor the Titanic! They also push the envelope with songs such as Nowhere Left To Run and Love’s Lockdown – and by the time they got to Down In The Hole I was half wondering whether they would pull out Riot In Cell Block Number 9 and see how it went – but again, this is all part of what seems to have been a fine evening’s entertainment and, one would think, more therapeutic than a dozen pottery classes or painting groups. More bands could take this lead, it’s a fine endeavour.
If you like a good, solid set of rock music, played by a tight and highly energetic young band who clearly revere the classics but put their own spin on things, then Hardwicke Circus might just be worth casting a bit of an ear towards. There’s a nice storytelling element to some of their lyrics as well, once again with the occasional wry sense of humour in a Ray Davies sort of way. One such moment in the Tyson Fury homage Ballad Of The Gypsy King certainly put a smile on my face; there are a lot of venues which sound very cool in a lyric – Caesar’s Palace, that sort of thing – but the triumphant namecheck of ‘The Staples Center’ doesn’t quite have that same ring to it! If that’s a deliberate lyrical twist it’s simply brilliant – and if not, well, Madison Square Garden gets in on the same song, so all’s right with the world again!
A tasty band doing some good things in an outreach kind of a way – what’s not to like? Next year guys – The Staples Center! Oh, and in case you were wondering… Hardwicke Circus is actually the name of a roundabout in their native Carlisle, which may not be Route 66, but it sure sounds good!