Andy Polaris reviews the mature yet still frenetic
James Chance & The Contortions in London
– catch his other UK dates this week
The artist formerly know as James White and the Blacks returned to the London stage this week for a night at Hackney’s Oslo in East London under his original name James Chance. Though discreetly announced, this small venue was however packed with a youngish crowd mostly not old enough to have seen his numerous previous incarnations and there was an air of anticipation in the room. In fact the last time I had seen him was as a surprise guest with British indie favourites Franz Ferdinand on the popular US Late Show in 2018 performing Feel the Love Go which could explain some of the younger crowd.
James White and the Blacks were one of the coolest bands of the late Seventies and early Eighties.The stylish James looked liked a poster boy for the Hollywood B-movie I Married a Teenage Deliquent with a beautiful insolence that knew how to take care of trouble. If Morticia Addams was hosting a fashionable nightclub, they would have been the house band.
The album Off White was one of the standout debuts that startled listeners with its free-form jazz playing that mixed punk attitude with a funk garage band backing. Released in 1979 on Michael Zilkha’s swiftly influential ZE Records, White became part of a family of impressive and idosyncratic label mates who included Kid Creole (August Darnell credited with production on a disco remix), Was Not Was, Cristina and Material.
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Contort Yourself became an instant cult classic along with the languid Stained Sheets, a late-night booty call between a disinterested lover and a female voice purring orgasmically on the other end of the line over a seductive and sometimes discordant backing track echoing the sax melody. The voice was apparently Lydia Lunch who James also collaborated with in the iconic Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. The album dealt with race love and sex on the wrong side of the tracks and it was a fresh sound dubbed part of the NY No Wave.
White also made an album Buy with The Contortions. This was followed by the albums Sax Maniac and Live at The Bains Douches (the most exclusive fashionable club in Paris at the time). The NY scene was obviously a spiritual home for myself and many fellow London club kids and I was fortunate to capture two exciting performances of the band on home turf at the legendary CBGB’s and again later at London’s long-gone Venue in Victoria. The whole ZE ethos left a big impression on London’s burgeoning nightlife scene with their songs featuring on the more selective playlist of certain nightspots.
This week we greeted a much older James Chance, now in his mid-sixties, a little hunched over in a stylish jacket eventually removed, who launched into his set to a rapturous reception. We were treated to a selection from his numerous albums including Sax Maniac, The Splurge, Jaded, The Flesh is Weak and of course Contort Yourself. His songs deal with gritty urban life and such themes as sexual encounters, libations, drugs and romantic disappointment.
James has more in common with Iggy and the Stooges than some of his jazz contemporaries, wriggling and convulsing in a St Vitus-like dance, pushing against the jerky rhythms of his younger Contortions who followed his commanding control of each song right through to climax. Letting out those trademark high-pitch yelps between stabs of squawking sax and swirling Hammond organ, this was all as far from metropolitan cocktail jazz as you could get.
The frenetic pace only slowed down for covers of the mellow jazz standard Days of Wine and Roses and later Gil Scott Heron’s abrasive Home is Where the Hatred Is.
It was refreshing to hear such passionate playing and the now-familiar scene of a veteran augmented by vibrant younger musicians (Siouxsie, Adam Ant) killing it on stage. The Contortions were tight in delivering a sturdy backbone, a delicious foil to Chance’s irrepressible stagecraft.
We witnessed a brilliant and energetic performance from one of music’s mavericks who helped define an era of original American musical creativity: his own offbeat soundtrack was unique.