Thursday, March 23, 2023

Hardwicke Circus: “At Her Majesty’s Pleasure” (2022) CD Review

Hardwicke Circus released its first studio album, The Borderland, in 2021. The band’s follow-up, At Her Majesty’s Pleasure, released in 2022, is certainly not a typical second album. It is a live album, recorded at prison chapels, featuring many of the same songs that were on the debut album. It’s kind of a ballsy move. The album does feature some original material not included on that first release, as well as some good choices of covers, songs by Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. There were a couple of changes in the band between the first and second releases, with Joe Hurst now on bass and vocals, and Louis Crosland on guitar and vocals. The band toured several prisons, playing to relatively small crowds due to pandemic restrictions, and the tracks on this disc are from two of those concerts, the one at HMP Standford Hill and the one at HMP Elmley, both prisons located on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. This project was made possible with public funding by Arts Council England.

The band opens this one with “Walking On Broken Glass,” a song from The Borderland. And the energy is excellent here, particularly in the guitar work and in that short lead on saxophone toward the end. And the sound is quite good. That is followed by “Nowhere Left To Run,” which is also from The Borderland. There is a brief introduction to the song: “We’re Hardwicke Circus from Carlisle. This is called ‘Nowhere Left To Run.’” There are some differences in the guitar part from the first version, and some good work on saxophone. There is a brief introduction to “A Reason To Believe” as well: “Well, thanks so much for coming out tonight. It’s good to see so many faces. It gives us a reason to believe.” There is a bit of humor in thanking folks for coming out, as the concert took place in a prison, and I imagine the audience wasn’t given a lot of options as to their plans for the evening. Anyway, this is a strong rendition, and is another song that was included on The Borderland.

The first cover of the album is Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” the title track from his 1965 album. They deliver a really good rendition, featuring some excellent work on both keys and guitar, and some high energy. There are elements of country and punk in their delivery, and it all works quite well. This track features special guest Officer Jamie Childs on lead guitar. The band jams on this one a bit, especially rocking the keys. They change the lines slightly, singing “He found an officer who fell to the floor/He said he ain’t engaged in anything like this before” instead of “He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor/He said, ‘I never engaged in this kind of thing before.’” They then go back to The Borderland material, with “My Sweet Love,” a song with more of a pop vibe and featuring more good work on saxophone.

“Let’s Make New Mistakes” is one of my favorite tracks on this album. It’s a song I really liked on the studio release, with that great driving beat, but this live version is even better. The band’s energy is fantastic here. These guys really deliver. It feels like a set closer. Just before the end, when Jonny says, “Let’s make new mistakes,” I can’t help but wonder just what that might have meant for that particular audience. Certainly the line hit them differently than it would an audience at a more mainstream venue. Then we get “Love’s Lockdown,” another of this disc’s highlights. This song is also from The Borderland, though its title has changed slightly. On the earlier release it was called simply “Lockdown.” But whatever its title, it is a great song. And again, it must have a somewhat different significance for an audience that is basically constantly in lockdown.

Any rappers in the room today?” Jonny asks the crowd. “We got some people thinking about it,” he observes. He invites people to join them on stage for “When The Chips Are Down.” I wonder how that would go over at a prison show here in the U.S. By the way, this introduction is actually included at the end of the previous track. The song, which is an original song that was not included on the first album, has a bluesy edge and includes a really good guitar solo. It is after that solo that Jonny then asks, “All right, any takers?” And someone does join the band, an inmate named Nazim Uddin, who performs a rap. It’s a cool moment. This track is another of the disc’s highlights. That is followed by a cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole,” here listed as “Down In The Hole.” This is another seriously cool track, their rendition featuring a fun rhythm and some good vocal work, as well as some wonderful blues guitar. Again, the energy is phenomenal.

They then return to material from The Borderland with “Ballad Of The Gypsy King,” yet another highlight of the album. I love that bass. And the band engages the audience, having them sing along with them. That’s followed by another fun track, a cover of “Go” by Ben Mullins, a song from his Troubles Plaything album. Hardwicke Circus delivers it with a delicious energy. At the end of the track, Jonny tells the crowd, “So we’re coming towards the end of our prison tour.” They then play “Man Of The Town,” a good, solid rock song with a playful element. This is an original composition, and one not included on that first album. It features some good work on guitar. The album wraps up with a cover of The Band’s “The Weight,” one of my favorite songs. They do a wonderful job with it, delivering a fairly faithful rendition, with a good amount of heart. In the second half of the song, there are band introductions.

CD Track List

  1. Walking On Broken Glass
  2. Nowhere Left To Run
  3. A Reason To Believe
  4. Highway 61 Revisited
  5. My Sweet Love
  6. Let’s Make New Mistakes
  7. Love’s Lockdown
  8. When The Chips Are Down
  9. Down In The Hole
  10. Ballad Of The Gypsy King
  11. Go
  12. Man Of The Town
  13. The Weight

At Her Majesty’s Pleasure was released on May 27, 2022 on Alternative Facts Records.

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