Last Friday, Exeter played host to a little American soul, in the form of three piece rock and roll veterans, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, made up of front man Huey Morgan, keyboardist Brian Leiser and drummer Frank Benbini. Currently on an extensive tour of the UK, this band- who have been active for over two decades- brought a crowd of fans thoroughly different to the usual university population. Looking around, it was clear that about 90% of people were over 40, 80% were men, and from where I was standing, 100% were white. It seemed strange that this group drew such a specific demographic, as they themselves work with a wide range of influences, from funk to soul to good old fashioned hip hop.
As someone who has limited experiences with the Fun Lovin’ Criminals, I wasn’t expecting much, but have to admit that I was very pleasantly surprised. It was the combination of all the styles I’ve just mentioned that did it for me; there was something very slick about the band’s merging of completely different elements that was extremely impressive. More than anything, I put this down to the vast amount of experience they have playing these sorts of gigs. They recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of their debut album Come Find Yourself, and they play with the kind of confidence that can only come from having done this for decades. In their own words, “We made this shit up twenty years ago and you still dig it!” The majority of their music was a funk/soul backdrop, supporting Morgan’s slow raps. There were only two songs where he actually sang, although in these I was impressed with his subtle, husky tones, which matched the vibe of the music they were creating perfectly. None of the instruments overpowered any of the others, even when Leiser broke out his French horn. In the upbeat songs, especially, everything was so smooth while still maintaining a very cool, spontaneous feel. King Of New York was a personal highlight; the crowd obviously knew it well and the band revelled in having it sung back to them.
Another highlight was the hip hop heavy Bear Hug. Before this, Morgan made a point of describing just what rap meant to him: “You know rap used to be a form of communication between neighbourhoods in Miami before Jay Z got involved. You’re looking at me like ‘Is he gonna rap now?’ Hell yes I’m going to rap.” Rap he did, and did so quite well. I’m not saying that Jay Z should hang up his Beats earphones just yet, but Morgan really got the crowd going. This track also featured an impressive performance by Leiser on the harmonica, an incongruous mix that worked very, very well.
In terms of their live show, I don’t think it’s a wild summation to say that the three men on stage oozed confidence to the level of arrogance. Throughout, the audience were subject to rambling speeches from Morgan, proclaiming himself a true hip hop artist, or making jokes that often weren’t fully understood. The first couple of times that he lapsed into his self-serving soliloquies I was almost on board, due to the fact that the music was good enough to make up for it. After watching him drink and swallow – extremely slowly, I might add- his third tequila shot, however, the novelty was wearing off. It may have been the acoustics, or just the fact that the audience were there for the music rather than the stage banter, but often his one liners were met with a confused whoop or two, while at least five times that I saw, he wrapped his knuckles against the microphone in the personification of the comedian’s security blanket: “Is this thing on?”
That being said, there were certain things that ensured an enthusiastic response, such as Morgan’s repeated assurances: “I don’t give a fuck.” I think it’s a shame that the otherwise impeccable live music was brought down by the same kind of bragging you get from a 14 year old who smokes weed, then wears those Huff socks. Constant references to how high and drunk they were got tiring pretty quickly to my very sober self, but it was fine, because they didn’t give a fuck!
All in all, while their obvious arrogance undermined the whole night for me somewhat, I have to say that overall, this was an impressive show. Ignoring the awkward pauses after the jokes didn’t hit- and how uncomfortable it is watching a man swallowing so slowly- the music was extremely funky and was performed to a high standard, and they looked like they were having a good time. I even saw Benbibi sharing his shots with the tech guy. Overall, I have to give them credit where credit is due. As they themselves concluded: “You want Rihanna up here? No. We’re some real fuckers playing real fucking instruments.” For that, I have to respect them.