Sutherlands, shakin’ ’em with the Rock Liberace


AMERICA CAN either make a band or break its balls. But nothing, and nothing that happens to a band here is going to mean they don’t want to make it over there. America is the land of opportunity — where the money is.

The last time I saw the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver before New York was in Cheltenham. It was their last gig before they left the country to tour America with Elton John.

It took place in an athletics ground…not exactly Woodstock.

They did well enough, but the audience made no attempt to show appreciation until the customary demand for an encore.

At least they didn’t get the plugs pulled on them like the next band, but it must have been a strange memory to take to the States.

The tour with Elton John replaced a shorter one supporting various acts and crowned six busy months since the merger between the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver.

Before that merger Gavin and Iain Sutherland had worked first as a four-piece with bass and drums behind their guitars after signing with Island in July 1971. They made an album that way, The Sutherland Brothers Band, and stuck to the line-up for another nine months before deciding to perform as an acoustic duo.

The duo worked well enough musically, since the brothers did all the singing and guitar-work, but too many people thought they must be a folk act instead of the smallest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world and “nanana” ain’t no substitute for “turelureli” for a cross-legged audience.

The second album, Lifeboat, made that problem a crisis, for they recorded it with an array of sessionmen and instruments in which the keyboard-work of Rabbit Bundrick, John Hawken, and Steve Winwood was prominent. Performing songs from Lifeboat on stage with two guitars was hardly satisfactory.

Coincidentally Quiver had reached an impasse. Their albums had failed to attract widespread attention and they’d lost founder member, twin lead guitarist and songwriter, Cal Batchelor.

The merger between the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver was mutually beneficial if a sometimes confusing mouthful. (“Which” asked an intrigued American journalist, “one of you guys is Quiver anyway?”).

In the six-piece line-up Gavin and Iain both play rhythm guitar,Tim Renwick is lead guitarist Pete Wood plays keyboards, Bruce Thomas bass, and Willie Wilson drums. Their first session together produced one of the year’s best singles, ‘You Got Me Anyway’. It got radio play and sounded like a natural hit, but did nothing.

It was onstage that the arrangement really took off. Wilson and Thomas laid a bed an elephant could bounce on, Pete Woods took on Bundrick, Hawken and Winwood single-handed and won, while Renwick could soar sweeter than a kite on a warm breeze or dig down hard enough to crack tarmac, whichever he wanted.

And all the while Iain and Gavin hung those intuitive harmonies over the top, the way almost no one else has done since the Everlies.

In this way they won themselves some nifty fans.

And somewhere along the line Elton John decided he’d like the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver to open for him on 42 dates across the USA, which beats teachers training colleges in Catford and athletics grounds in Cheltenham.

As a first tour it’s one fat peach. Even if they don’t get to travel on Elton’s Starship, whose in-flight movie is the notorious Deep Throat and which costs a working man’s annual wage every time it takes off, they have his P.A. laid on and play to audiences whose eagerness to see the Liberace of rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t turn them into bigots.

Naturally they’ve had to make some changes to their act. For a start their set is only about 40 minutes long — less than half the time they’re used to playing — which imposes certain limits on what they do.

Iain: “The way we’re working without sound checks in different halls every night is difficult — we don’t really settle down until three or four numbers into the set, and by that time we’ve only got three or tour more before we have to come off again.”

The size of the gigs is restivtive too.

“You can’t try and be remotely informal with twenty five thousand people. It’s like speaking to a football crowd through a megaphone half the time.

“Nine out of ten people can hardly make out the words you’re saying, whereas in Britain you can talk to an audience. Here it’s ‘Hello, how are you? Here we go’…boom, boom, boom.”

In fact, they had made an attempt at informality on the first few gigs. In the Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas, they tried a couple of jokes that had the whole band falling over, but the audience remained impassive.

The shortness of the sets doesn’t make them any softer to perform, however.

Gavin: “We come off stage just as nackered as we’re used to coming off stage. I think we just cram a bit more energy into it, even if it’s subonsciously. We must do, because we’re definitely getting tired now after the gigs. We’re starting to feel it a bit”

That tiredness, of course, isn’t just a result of what goes down on stage.

Iain: “It’s the hardest work we’ve ever done in our lives. That’s why people talk about touring the States in terms of it being a make or break thing. You haven’t really done anything until you go there.

“Nine out of ten times the distance between gigs is like going from London to Aberdeen and back to Bristol and up to Inverness, which you wouldn’t dream of doing back home.

“And there’s always so much to do — especially first time around — because apart from the actual gigs you’re meeting all the record company and press people, you’re doing a lot of interviews and radio appearances.”

I first saw the band in New York at MadisonSquareGardens, an auditorium which makes London’s Rainbow seem like an intimate club. As they began ‘Have You Had A Vision?’ half the crowd were still searching for their places and the girl in the next seat nudged me and inquired, “Who is this?”.

That’s the deal for a support band, no matter where they play or whom they support. The sound floated above the audience in waves through the first three numbers, losing the excellent playing of Tim Renwick and Pete Wood and diffusing the natural energy of the songs themselves.

However, by the time they got around to ‘Real Love’, one of the stand-outs on the Lifeboat album, the sound was all there. The Sutherland’s voices were as strong and sure as ever and Renwick and Wood were beginning to carve up everything in sight.

The peak of the set was the single, ‘You Got Me Anyway’, which, ignored in Britain, is a top 30 hit in the States and still climbing.

It’s easy to hear why, for it’s compact and melodic with the sort of chorus that used to be described as catchy, but these days is usually referred to with a greater degree of cynicism as a hook.

Nassau Coliseum, the next night, was less spirited. Wood had been forced to swap his grand for a Fender electric piano and the sound lacked the chunky crispness only an acoustic piano can provide; it was also short on horse power.

BostonGarden, though, was something else entirely. The enormous arena was older, crummier than either MadisonSquareGardens or Nassau Coliseum, but the sound was sharper than a cold Budweiser. The numbers were the same as before, but it was one of those sets where everything comes together so right.

It was their 25th gig in six weeks, 17 to go. When they get back at the end of October they’ll be a different band from the one you saw before they went away. Maybe you never even saw them. Either way they’ll knock you dead.

NME (6/10/73)

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