By Matthew Jones
September 20, 2012
It is something of a cliché to say that great musicians sound unimaginably greater live. Stevie Wonder and Geno Washington are some personal proofs of this general rule. When I first heard The Third Degree’s northern-soul take on Duffy’s ‘Mercy’, I wanted to see them live immediately. Although I did not expect this virtually unknown band to top the big names, as an originally one-off collective that impressed enough to become part of Tri-Sound’s mission to “bring back ‘real’ music,” I eagerly awaited seeing them live. But my wish finally having been granted by their Acid Jazz (the band’s new label) EP launch, I am sad to discover that great musicians can also be much smaller in person.
The venue initially seemed like a natural choice. A Soho bar & restaurant that boasts a stylish menu of soul, jazz and funk, Floridita magnetically attracts a band with “a vintage, near-purist northern soul style.” Phoning up the venue to check the dress-code, I am succinctly told ‘smart-glamorous’ with the expectation that I know what this means and already have the appropriate section of my wardrobe freshly pressed. Excitedly covering the creases in my suit with sticky-back diamantes, I hop on the Megabus to a fancy gig in London.
Upon arrival at the venue, and after picking off the diamantes one-by-one, I am admitted to what can only be described as an underground lair of swank. Executive-types give me quizzical looks from tables surrounding the modestly-populated dance-floor. The fridges behind the bar have opaque doors which whisper ‘classy men know what they are drinking before they get to the bar.’ On stage, charismatic rockabilly trio The Piccadilly Bullfrogs perform all the classics to warm up the regulars. The place is subtly perfumed with exclusivity – an odd choice for an EP Launch.
Fashionably later than expected, The Third Degree humbly take to the stage. At first I do not recognise them – the vintage suits and slick lead singer from the ‘Mercy’ video appear to be missing. But after a soulful cover of Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’ early on in the set, I am both reassured and made anxious. On the one hand, I am comforted by a feeling of ‘are you sure this isn’t the original?’ that the band’s seamless covers deliver again and again. On the other hand, I am fearful that the band only delivers seamless covers again and again – a fear soon begins to be realised.
To be fair, the eight-piece are as tight as an unemployed graduate – mimicking the sound of northern soul with an unrivalled wizardry, adding a new, secret ingredient in which their small fanbase revels. Furthermore, as their set progresses, the band makes clear that their abilities extend far beyond new interpretations of Now! That’s What I Call Music hits by taking on Chicago’s ‘25 or 6 to 4’ and Blood, Sweat & Tears ‘Lucretia Macevil’ – though in some ways, these more soul-y songs require much less work than the hits of noughties pop divas. Amongst the first five or six songs, there might be one original, but if it so it is indistinct and as I hear the lead singer’s introductory words “this is a song by…” repeated in every interval between songs, I’m desperate for the words “The Third Degree” to finish the sentence.
The ‘lead singer’ and ‘intervals’ bring further bemusement of their own. Regarding the former, this position in the band appears only to be a temporary one, with different people being pulled from off-stage to act as lead throughout the show. At first I am inclined to think this is a kind of job share, with huskier-voiced mates from the audience taking over when needed, for example. But as the main lead (Jon Allen) steps off stage when his replacement arrives and heads for the green room, there at least appears to be a lazyness and lack of professionalism about the band. This is only reinforced by the thirty-minute interval the band take after only twenty minutes playing, during which their conspicuous green room is plugged with trayful after trayful of drinks, giving the portly man on the dancefloor enough time to successfully complete his latin-boogaloo mating ritual.
Finally, it all begins to make sense. This is not a gig, and it hardly seems an ‘EP Launch,’ as advertised. Indeed, the band do not even mention the EP in the first half of the show (though it appears to be centred around their take on Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ which is being released) and there is certainly no smart-glamorous merch stand selling quirky t-shirts with the words ‘I got Third Degree burned!’ emblazoned across the back. Rather, this is a cabaret performance – a very good one, but a cabaret performance nonetheless. It is disappointing not because the music is bad, but because the ‘house band’ for the night are clearly saturated with talent and don’t seem to be taking themselves, and by implication, their fans, too seriously (though this is not solely the fault of the band’s musicians). Indeed, at the back of the restaurant stands a man in a tracksuit, who appears to have heard the band on the radio and liked the sound enough to pay the £10 entry fee for these relative newcomers. Twenty minutes into the unexpected ‘interval’, he leaves, his face flushed with frustration. His actions stand testament to the Third Degree’s future as a professional band – a band who might continue to reel in fans with a very sharp hook, only to throw most of them back again. Indeed, the band have done well to create a vintage, ‘word on the street’ feel about them by doing unusual covers of big hits, staggering their releases, opting for vinyl and gaining the informal endorsement of Craig Charles on his weekly funk and soul show. But the original Northern Soul movement could not have gained the momentum it did by circulating amongst such limited circles – it only did so as an incredibly original, up-tempo epidemic spreading through the full-to-bursting dancehalls of Northern England. Whilst the future of the Third Degree’s brand of ‘new northern soul’ need not be restricted to the north, one hopes that the band will begin to take influence from the original movement beyond the replicating its sound alone.