September 27, 2016
All photos by Jon Bauer.
British band The Heavy (Bath, England) swooped through San Francisco last Tuesday playing an energetic set at Mezzanine in support of their most recent release Hurt & the Merciless (Counter Records 2016).
Stitching together thick neo-soul rhythms to R&B funk and delivering it in an overdriven garage rock package, The Heavy has a vibe that is altogether fresh and familiar. Walking onstage to a spookily spoken background soundscape that would be at home in a 60’s sci-fi movie, vocalist Kelvin Swaby and his mates leaned into the set with ‘Can’t Play Dead’ (The Glorious Dead – 2012).
Immediately the crowd was drawn in, swaying side to side as if hypnotized by Swaby’s raspy soul growl and his tight fedora. With Dan Taylor (bass), Spencer Page (guitar), and Chris Ellul (drums) delivering the goods behind him, The Heavy kept the crowded dance floor of Mezzanine moving during a 75-minute set that included cuts from their new recording as well as older tunes that were recognizable on a number of different levels.
Easily recognizable are the influences that they wear very obviously. Swaby evokes a measured dose of James Brown in his vocal style and stage presence. Leaning more on gritty garage influences, he differentiates himself from other neo-soul singers such as Leon Bridges and John Legend that fall neatly into the smooth, clean cut crooner image that is often associated with the genre.
‘Miss California’ (Hurt & the Merciless) was a crowd favorite that tapped into the polished guitar driven pop-funk that marked the early career of Maroon 5 before they became an over-produced mega-hit machine (think ‘Harder To Breathe’ as a reference). The crowd sang along to the chorus, and the tune rocked much harder than the recorded version with the guitars and bass up front in the mix, clearly in front of the keyboard/horn hooks.
Actually though the production on Hurt & the Merciless was intended to capture the rawness of The Heavy’s live show, more often than not the live presentation of these songs shattered the more ‘refined’ sound on the recording.
‘Since You Been Gone’ (lead track on Hurt & the Merciless) took advantage of the stomping beat played by drummer Ellul….a fast rolling groove that reinvigorated the crowd during the later stages of the set. Launching directly into ‘Turn Up’ kept the room hot and sweaty, with an undeniable jump-up funk rock appeal that runs throughout Hurt & the Merciless.
Closing the set on a high, The Heavy expressed their affection for the Tuesday night San Francisco crowd and bid a fond goodnight as the audience reciprocated the kind feelings. After taking a very short break, The Heavy returned for a 3-song encore, which ended by reaching back to the ultra-familiar ‘How You Like Me Now’ (The House That Dirt Built – 2009).
Whether you realize it or not, everyone knows this song….quite a feat for an under the radar band that is still searching for the break through that will take them to the next level of headlining larger theater venues. ‘How You Like Me Now’ is one of the most media referenced songs in recent memory…..being used ubiquitously for movies such as ‘Horrible Bosses’, in video games, and on TV commercials (most notably on the incessantly aired Kia commercials).
Despite that success and exposure, to get to that elusive next step, The Heavy must differentiate passed just the magnetism of Swaby. During the evening’s performance though the band was solid, there was not really anyone that was a noticeably standout player.
Also, the sound on their recordings, which highlights splashes of bright horns and haunting keyboard hooks, could be better represented on stage. Live horns onstage would boost the presence and onstage energy immensely. While they did compensate with a bigger ‘rock’ sound that was effective, The Heavy could benefit from being more consistent in their sound between their recordings and performances.
Opening the evening was The Ramona Flowers (name from the Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World movie). Though also from England, this is a band with a completely different sound than The Heavy. More electronically based, the Ramona Flowers use great syncopation between the steady drum beats and synth driven sounds. ‘Lust and Lies’ and ‘Dirty World’ were highlights of their set which demonstrated the strength of the band’s electronica sound propping up vocalist Steve Bird’s voice which is slightly reminiscent of Bono.
For more information on The Heavy, see their website.
Check out The Ramona Flowers here.