Simon Cousins reviews The Christians at Theatre Severn with front man Garry Christian and his five-piece band, serving up 'jazz, pop and socially aware soul'
“I’ve just got back from holiday and I feel terrible!” says Liverpool-born Garry Christian, as he takes to the stage at Theatre Severn with his five-piece band. He is suffering from back pain, which troubles him for the duration of the set. But he grins broadly throughout and chats genially to the audience between every song.
And what a treasure trove of hits we are treated to. Their first five singles all made the top 40 in Britain, and their debut album ‘The Christians’ entered the UK Albums Chart at number 2 in 1987. It eventually sold over a million copies. To this day, it remains Island Records’ highest-selling debut album.
The original band comprised the three brothers Christian: Roger (who sadly died from a brain tumour in 1998) Russell and Garry, with fellow member Henry Priestman, (whose middle name, coincidentally was Christian) composing the lion’s share of the songs on the first two albums. After three albums, Garry Christian moved to Paris in 1995 to record a solo album and the band drifted apart.
But this new band recaptures the original line-up’s perfect blend of jazz, pop and “socially aware soul”. They kick off with 1993’s ‘Perfect Moment’ and follow with ‘Born Again’, ‘Greenbank Drive and ‘Words’, an adaption of a famous Irish folk refrain which Bobby Kewley embellishes stylishly with fretless bass. The harmonies are warm and layered and multi-talented lead guitarist Joey Ankrah supports Garry with some of upper register notes that, by his own admission, he finds challenging nowadays, though the richness and timbre of that soulful voice is still there.
After ‘There you go again’ from the second album album ‘Colour’ comes my personal favourite ‘Forgotten Town’ from 1987, with a three-part harmony a cappella section and a barnstorming finish. “The song came about in Henry Priestman’s Liverpool flat back in 1986,” Garry recalled recently, “with an A & R man from Island Records sitting in a corner. Henry had this mirror which was really dusty so I wrote the lyrics to ‘Forgotten Town’ in the dust and I read them as I was singing it.”
Garry rather strangely informs us that he is “heavily into gardening nowadays” before keyboard player Mike Griggs leads us into ‘Ideal World’, one of eight songs from that iconic first album. “When we recorded that song, we were talking about what was going on in South Africa, the Berlin wall still being up and things like that,” Garry remembered. “A bad scene.” He asks the audience if they think it's worse now. “It’s all going to rags**t,” someone offers helpfully.
Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Bottle”, covered by the band in a way that makes it their own, cuts a great groove and features some fine retro wah pedal guitar from Joey. Garry loses his place on the setlist afterwards and asks the audience, “Where are we now?” “1989?” shouts one wag.
We have, in fact, reached 1990. ‘What’s in a word?’ gets a few people up and dancing and they stay up for another brilliant cover: Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner City Blues’. Garry lends the yellow tambourine he bought from Music Bros. that afternoon to someone in the front row.
Craig Connet, looking like the bearded drummer ZZ Top never had, lays down the hypnotic beat for ‘When the Fingers Point’ before Garry announces the final number, ‘Hooverville’, a song that brought to attention the lies and promises of the Herbert Hoover government as they oversaw millions of Americans losing their homes when 'they promised us the world’.
Happily, The Christians return for an encore, with lush harmonies washing over the tender strains of ‘Sad Songs’, before the entire audience get to their feet to clap and dance along to the Isley Brothers’ ‘Harvest for the World’. All its sale proceeds went to British Third-World charities when The Christians released their cover of the song in 1988. It is an uplifting, thought-provoking way to finish this stirring portrait of another era.
The light show could have done with a bit more pzazz, but this ‘new’ band, which has actually been together since 2005, shared a nostalgic vibe with us all and it was a joy to hear those classic, “sophisti-pop” songs all over again. Long may they be played.