I wasn’t very familiar with the Levellers before this show, apart from that they took their name from a way-ahead-of-its-time 17th century political movement that sought universal suffrage, religious tolerance and social equality.
There was a vague idea in my head of punky, crusty, dreadlocked folk rockers who rose to prominence in the Swampy era of travelling protestors and eco-warriors, supplying the furious soundtrack to an agitated Britain fired up by the poll tax riots.
An enthusiastic ‘Levellover’ filled me in a little. Apparently, by the mid-90s, they were the country’s most popular indie band. They are reputed to have entertained the largest ever Glastonbury crowd – a 300,000 behemoth in 1994, before the festival became Notting Hill’s away weekend in Somerset and the corporate fencing and security guards that keep gatecrashers out today.
Somehow, all this passed me by, though. Swotting up on YouTube before the gig, I unearthed a selection of videos from their pomp. Here, a fresh-faced, hairy, wild bunch of class warriors rocked enthusiastically through a series of up-tempo toons, thrashing their instruments and swinging them around with quite some abandon.
Tonight would be more sedate. Middle age comes to us all and the ten-piece that ambled onstage to take its seats for this acoustic set looked about as counterculture as a gaggle of laid back, 50-something graphic designers slouching into their favourite Costa sofa after the school run.
Few would have seemed out of place guiding their trolley down Sainsbury’s chilled goods aisle, let alone imagined as drivers of revolution and seismic social reform. Apart from a heavily tattooed, extravagantly tonsured mandolinist/bassist, not dissimilar in appearance to The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob, even the grumpiest curtain-twitching Daily Express reader would barely have given them a second glance.
Bolstered by a cellist, two extra violinists and a percussionist, the dectet (yes, I looked it up!) took the foot off the pedal. Not dissimilar to Elbow, but with steelier, less dreamy themes and lyrics.
Traditionally, the Levellers marry anthems addressing contemporary evils – crooked police, homelessness, rampant militarism – to lively folk stylings. On this tour, though, more expansive, euphonic tones have supplanted the spikey jigs and smoothed rough edges.
And it was the additional strings that stole the show for me, with the three violins and cello bending sound sublimely to add enormous texture and depth to the beautiful harmonies. Obviously, a slower pace and symphonics take much of the fury out of angry political songs, but they also invest them with a quiet, sincere dignity that is equally hard-hitting and thought-provoking.
“In the old days, they’d have been jumping up and down, smashing hell out of their instruments,” my gig buddy, Cameron, observed wistfully as we walked to the car afterwards.
For me, it was an improvement on the YouTube renderings. Sometimes it really is better to grow old gracefully than disgracefully.
By David Gatehouse.