A couple of weeks ago, I saw A Band Called Malice at the Half Moon in Putney. Returning after a successful appearance in January, the gig had sold out in advance and South London was ready to experience the style, attitude and hits of one of Britain’s most enduring bands once again.
The newest Jam tribute on the scene, A Band Called Malice are rapidly gaining a reputation as arguably the best. I had the chance to chat with the current lineup of frontman Andy Coultas, drummer Warren Mee and bassist Matt Barker before their set and find out exactly what makes a good tribute band tick.
Spend any time with the boys, on stage or off, and their passion for the Jam comes through immediately.
Coultas makes no secret of the fact that he was never a big Jam fan at the time, but slowly started playing the band’s songs to a good reception in other projects, morphing into a Jam tribute which he perfected during years playing with The Jam’d. He’s meticulous in his preparation, listening back to previous recorded shows to work out where things can be tweaked. “You’re constantly swapping the setlist about. Different venues, different length setlists call for different things.”
A drum teacher by trade (“I try and slip some Jam in there!”), Mee was formerly in a successful Red Hot Chili Peppers tribute and his CV also includes another short-lived Jam throwback and an appearance in a Foo Fighters tribute show. But despite a varied musical pedigree, he’s also a long term Weller fan: “I’ve always liked The Jam since I was about ten years old, but also all sorts of music.” He’s still as driven as ever, and wants to play the biggest venues possible: “No-one’s got a divine right, there is competition,” he admits, but is keen to see the band progress to the highest level.
Newest recruit Barker has been a fan of The Jam since the early days: “I remember watching Top of the Pops in 1977, there were bands like Showaddywaddy and The Rubettes, and then The Jam came on, I think it was All Around the World. I just saw them in the suits, with the Rickenbacker guitars and the energy and the passion, I thought ‘wow, that’s what I want to follow, I want to do that.’ I’ve followed them ever since.” He has been a member of several bands who have included Jam songs in their set and also writes in his home studio. “It’s not The Jam, but it’s good fun” – the rest of the band are fans, but he doesn’t seem to have any intention of slipping something new among the Jam classics like Foxton does. Well, “not yet…”
A friend of Mee’s, the pair live nearby and attend the same gym. When the Foxton hotseat became available earlier this year, Barker jumped at the chance.
Despite the challenges presented by geography and other commitments which limit rehearsal time, A Band Called Malice are a tightly knit unit. “Because we know the songs, we don’t need to rehearse [so much], we can just get up and do it” says Barker. Mee interjects: “You just need to find out how each other plays.” Coultas tells me about the “raw, spontaneous” quality of the show, mirroring The Jam’s style.
Manager Jo Adams has been a big believer in the band and a key catalyst for their rapid rise up the tribute ranks. “The driving force” according to Coultas, her stated aim couldn’t be simpler: “to make them the best Jam tribute out there.” As much as the trio are a tribute to the fire and skill of Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler, she channels John Weller in her dogged determination to get the band bookings and possesses Weller Snr’s absolute belief in the product she’s promoting. “It’s growing, and people seem to like it!”
They’re supported by Rob Golton who takes the band’s live photos. He also photographs Queen and Adam Lambert regularly, and by getting to know his subjects, rather than spending three songs each night taking a solid set of snaps of different bands, he’s able to get some sublime shots which are well worth checking out on his Instagram here.
The band are quick to praise Golton (“the best”) and they give him a lot to work with. When you think of The Jam, many people will think of the ‘Weller leaning back, grimacing, one leg straight, the other bent’ shot (you know the one), and Golton is able to capture the band’s authentic movement with ease.
I chatted to the band about their recent nomination for the 2018 National Tribute Music Awards. “I’m really proud of that,” said Coultas, “it’s great just to be nominated.” Jo reminds me of the magnitude of that achievement, with the band only going for less than a year, in a busy market (From the Jam, The Jam’d, The Jam DRC etc.) But you get the sense that, while it will come in very handy indeed for promotion, trophies aren’t what they’re in it for.
You can see this from the hangers on hooks in the corner of the compact dressing room, graced in the past by the likes of Elvis Costello during his celebrated residency, The Who, The Small Faces, The Stones, John Martyn, The Yardbirds, Alexis Korner, Steve Pilgrim and Dr Feelgood. On them sit three pristine black suits, slightly dodgy ties and crisp white shirts reflecting the In The City cover. But for A Band Called Malice it’s not merely attempting to dress up to supplement the act, it’s a crucial part of channelling The Jam for the night.
“It’s an iconic look” explains Coultas. Mee adds: “There was a smartness about that movement. It was important, it made you stand out a bit. So we try and replicate that.” Adams notes, correctly, that their stage attire is one of the things that sets them apart from other Jam tributes.
“We have to take the jackets off after a while though, because it’s so hot!” laughs Mee.
There’s praise for the famous Half Moon, where they sold out their second consecutive show this year.
“It’s a nice sized venue” says Barker. “Everyone’s close and you can have good interaction with the audience, and [being sold out means] everyone wants to come and hear it which is good.”
What about the gig? It was no surprise that they were good. They were more than good. But the band has even improved since I first saw them in Norwich, yet more evidence of their growing power.
This improvement is down in no small part to new bassist Barker. It’s a hard job to replicate Foxton’s dry vocals and get the pitch just right, but he gets it spot on. He even led a couple of Foxton’s signature songs, before Coultas came in to beef up the vocal attack later.
In terms of his movement too, Barker is the real deal – those gym sessions have paid off not only in getting him the gig but in his stage presence too. Where Foxton nowadays might give you one of his signature jumps per night, two if you’re lucky and the knees are having a good day, the supple Barker might as well be 1982 Bruce. Alongside Coultas, their movements perfectly reflect the way their vocals work so well together on many songs, often both looking like they’re squeezing every drop out of their instruments.
Oh, and his bass isn’t bad either! Barker possesses the necessary reach and performance craft to fit perfectly into the Foxton role musically as well as visually. He plays the most underrated Jam member to perfection, happy to support Coultas’ more excitable moments as Weller but also willing to step well into the limelight when necessary, providing gritty basslines note-perfect which defined The Jam’s biggest hits. He played particularly strongly on a funky Billy Hunt and a superb News of the World, probably the best I’ve heard the latter performed, but to single out any song is impossible.
I’d love to pick out some star moments of a superb performance by drummer Mee, but he follows Buckler in making everything look so easy this is a very hard task. Perhaps the highlight wasn’t either of his two superb solos (including some epic tension-building filling on Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, a song which was really carried by Barker’s bass), but the breathless Slow Down, their version of The Jam’s Larry Williams cover, which featured some excellent sticksmanship.
Mee also deserves praise for his deft addition of a drum track to That’s Entertainment, which many other bands would bottle and perform acoustically – didn’t Morrissey warn us about how badly an acoustic cover of that can turn out? Anyway… Mee’s drumming here never appeared unnecessary or encroached on Coultas’ delivery, instead adding a nice beat behind the strings which turned That’s Entertainment into an even more impressive piece of expression than it already was, encouraging some nice crowd participation too.
The set was wide-ranging, taking in all the corners of The Jam’s impressive output from such a short life. One interesting inclusion early on was The Place I Love. When Weller wrote it for the All Mod Cons album, the band were on the brink of making it very big indeed and Coultas’ rendition of it illuminated the newfound confidence evident in Weller’s rejuvenated songwriting after This is the Modern World’s relative failure.
Some of the best songs were the early numbers. Despite not sticking totally to a chronological timespan, several of the In The City tracks were used to warm up the crowd at the beginning and please the anoraks. The first four were rattled through so rapidly, in true Jam style, that I wondered if we’d be done by 10pm.
As promised, it was about six songs in when Coultas finally relented and removed his jacket, a film of perspiration already glistening on his forehead.
Coultas gave the others a break for his solo rendition of English Rose which stood out in the encore when I last saw the band in Norwich. It sounded great as expected, one of the best moments which really showed Coultas’ versatility after some of the most lively, rock’n’roll influenced early numbers.
After everyone’s had a couple of beers you can’t really go wrong playing Billy Hunt, and its bouncy chorus was not the first indication that vocally, too, A Band Called Malice are the real deal. Close your eyes and it could easily have been twenties Weller and Foxton up there.
The Butterfly Collector is another good way of separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to Jam and Weller tributes. For anyone who still needed confirmation after Coultas’ earlier showing on English Rose that A Band Called Malice can successfully lower the tone, this was it. This ranks among my top five Weller compositions of all time and I’m glad to report that the fan favourite delivered in all the right places.
Great credit should be given to the band for even attempting Private Hell. It’s a deceptively difficult song to get right live but they made a decent fist of it where others might stay away. It’s hard to explain why but I’ve never really liked it live, whoever it’s been performed by. I think it’s because it’s just a little bit too well crafted to play on stage, with the interaction between Weller and Foxton’s voices and their guitars needing your full attention to process. But I’m glad they gave it a go, it’s a popular tune among Jam fans so on balance was probably worth doing.
The other Setting Sons songs – from my personal favourite Jam album – which mainly came later on were all excellent: Girl on the Phone was as authentic as you could possibly get, and in a killer double-header Thick as Thieves saw Coultas and Barker bouncing off each other and Saturday’s Kids was as raucous as it was intended to be with some great guitar too.
See, it’s not just that Coultas’ guitars look the real deal (I am nobody, xits etc.), he can make them sound it too. He’s a superb guitarist and as the gig wore on we got several more nice guitar breaks. As Weller knows, with just one guitarist there’s really no place to hide and while there is an argument that a couple of Coultas’ later solos could have been even higher in the mix and in-your-face with the effects pedals, they were dealt with well enough by the sound desk to make an impact but not go to over-the-top and cross the line between authentic tribute and parody.
With a name like A Band Called Malice, they couldn’t really afford to get Town Called Malice wrong and they certainly didn’t – the audience were in just the right mood as the set wore on for the anthem which was as boisterously received as ever.
The Jam are hardly lacking in big songs, and a singalong Going Underground was great; you get the feeling it could have gone on all night if the band had wanted it to.
Emerging for a well-received encore, Ghosts was one of the highlights of the whole evening. Coultas absolutely hit the spot with his vocals here and while it would be stupid to suggest a tribute band could do anything better than the originals, I greatly preferred it to Weller’s recent live version and it gives any live rendition I’ve heard a run for its money.
A Band Called Malice’s signature song, if you can give a tribute band one, is Eton Rifles. “It’s normally got that vibe,” says Coultas when explaining before why it’s his favourite to play, “that you’ve built everything up to this big crescendo.”
Tonight’s sprawling set-closer, it featured some superb playing from all the members and they even tightened up again to play a few bars of Batman. It worked well, and it was nice to hear a snippet of the song no Jam tribute will attempt on its own (and rightly so!) well worked in: who says tribute bands can’t come up with inventive new ideas of their own?
“It’s really pleasing afterwards when people come up to you and talk to you, and tell you that it’s really taken them back hearing it,” says Barker. “If you can transport people back to 1978, you’ve done a good job.”
Before the gig, the band all chipped in to tell me why the Jam was so important to them and what they hoped to replicate and bring out in their live performance. “The energy, the passion” is the aim for Coultas. Mission accomplished. I can’t think of any better custodians to keep The Jam’s spirit alive.
A Band Called Malice return to Norwich Arts Centre on the 12th January 2019. Tickets are already on sale, they sold well for the last show and with the band rapidly gaining admirers it would be wise to snap them up here sooner rather than later. They’re also heading back to the Half Moon on the 18th January. For their full touring schedule, updated as new dates are announced, visit: https://www.abandcalledmalice.com/gigs.