By Francesca Nottola
Ezra Furman’s life has changed quite a bit since The Guardian’s Michael Hann decided in 2013 to let the world know that Ezra’s second solo album Day Of The Dog deserved 5 stars out of 5 and in 2015 he defined him ‘the most compelling act you can see right now’ . No less than Iggy Pop commented ‘I really like Ezra Furman. I think the guy’s got something. He’s got a lot of wit and nerve’. Lou Reed saw a very young Ezra cover his ‘Heroin’ on acoustic guitar in 2008 at the SXSW Lou Reed tribute and loved it; he also asked if Ezra did heroin and he advised him not to, as it’s ‘shit’. Well, he certainly was an authority on that and many other subjects, the man who changed music forever and who influenced Ezra Furman probably more than anyone else, in life and music. The band are also regular guests at Marc Riley’s BBC Radio 6 show that provides the UK with the most interesting musicians around. Agreement on those celebrity endorsements seems to be unanimous also among us plebeians, and by now many of us have witnessed the excellence of this band live or on TV or listened to their recorded output. If you haven’t yet, you most definitely should too and you can start from their recent Glastonbury set.
The band has been touring almost non-stop for the last three/two years, and while any other human being would be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, these musicians keep delivering incredibly high quality performances and share overflowing energy. The band leader in particular, but all other band members too in equal measure. Ezra’s Boy-friends are: Jorgen Jorgensen on bass and back vocals, Sam Durkes on drums, Ben Joseph on keyboards, guitars and back vocals and Tim Sandusky on sax and back vocals. Not only are they fantastic, competent musicians, they are also a spectacle to behold and a joy to be around. Ben Joseph dances at the soundcheck and is always smiling on stage. His versatility on keyboards and guitars is impressive. He can effortlessly switch from a 1920s Charleston-styled piano to awesome delay guitar layers to accompany Ezra’s lead. Sam Durkes is another exceptionally talented musician, one of the few drummers who understand that cymbals were not invented to bother people’s ears and are to be used sparingly. He is king of the snare drum and floor toms and he is able to create a warm solid structure to the set together with bassist Jorgen Jorgensen, another phenomenal musician who masters both bass and guitar in an eclectic band as Ezra Furman’s and also in reggae bands. Last but not least, histrionic saxophone and maracas player Tim Sandusky, who has succeeded in freeing the saxophone from the cheesy stigma of the 1980s and in making it audible again. Sandusky is also the engineer behind the sound in Ezra Furman’s albums, being the manager of Studio Ballistico in Chicago, where Ezra’s solo albums have been recorded and mastered.
The Trades Club in Hebden Bridge is a very suitable venue: it has a remarkable history of gigs, it is situated at the heart of a breathtaking landscape and serves a wonderful community of alternative, bohemian people. I am shocked that, at the beginning of the gig, when some people see that I am struggling to see hardly anything happening on stage due to being diversely tall, they smile at me and push me forward, encouraging me to find my way towards the front. Not one, at least four people. And one lady who accidentally takes my spot apologises, although she really did not need to. Excuse me, where am I? Is this heaven? Do these people really exist? They are gentle and kind in Hebden Bridge, I’m fucking moving here tomorrow and I’m going to get all the hippie love they are willing to shower me with.
Despite the immensely tiring schedule, the band manages to give us an excellent show that sets the Hebdeners on fire. The wooden floor bounces like a trampoline and I have faith in the rigorous British health and safety standards: it won’t collapse. The club, like many other businesses in Hebden Bridge, was affected by a devastating flood in December 2015, but most of the town’s lively activities have managed to reopen and thrive again. Nothing can bend the unbreakable spirit of the English North. Occasionally, tonight, the levels of microphones puzzle band members but, quite frankly, we hardly notice and don’t really care, because even if we did not hear them, we know Ben’s crazy piano and Jorgen’s booming basslines by heart. While the 2015 tour was mostly focused on Perpetual Motion People, the latest dates have offered a heterogeneous setlist, with songs from all of Ezra Furman’s post-Harpoons (his previous band) solo releases. I love their original material, but I also think that Songs By Others – released in the occasion of Record Store Day 2016 – deserves a special mention for bringing the art of the cover to a transcendent level that only Jeff Buckley could achieve with his The Smiths and Van Morrison’s heart-squeezing interpretations. ‘I Can Change’ (LCD Soundsystem) and ‘Androgynous’ (The Replacements) have acquired, with Ezra Furman’s delicate vocals and guitars, a further layer of intensity that pierces straight into your guts.
The UK feels like a second home to the band, who have probably toured every single venue in this country, Furman claims. It is the UK that perceived their incredible talent first when their native homeland was still numb to their quest for recognition. The Hebden crowd interacts cheerfully with the band throughout the set, although we would rather not hear the inappropriate stuff that some weirdos feel entitled to shout at Ezra at gigs or say after gigs. While Ezra Furman’s infinite intellectual, political and musical freedom normally draws a lot of appreciation and love, it also attracts less pleasant demands which – the artist has shared in a conversation before the gig – occasionally slide into the morbid or plain hateful and queerphobic. A few people on the internet proudly and openly proclaim themselves as his stalkers and, even though this may sound innocent and a joke, it is not pleasant at all. There are personal borders that need not be violated unless someone explicitly authorises you to. Yes, the issue of consent can also apply to fandom, and entitlement to people’s bodies, energy, space and time also applies to musicians. Is it a coincidence that this entitlement manifests itself with an individual who wears feminine clothes and makeup? Is it a coincidence that in this deeply misogynistic and queerphobic world the feminine and queer keep being the target of entitlement and abuse? I don’t think so.
Neither some mainstream press nor some fans are able to handle comfortably the complexity this courageous artist has put forward. Ezra Furman’s appearance, which expresses a long, successful process of self-acceptance and identity definition, arouses in some people curiosity and ridicule, and Ezra’s message of freedom, belonging and support for the queer community gets entirely desecrated in absurd requests to both not wear dresses or to forcefully do wear dresses and makeup for magazine covers because if he wears just jeans and a t-shirt with no crimson lipstick he’s not a circus animal anymore and can’t be thrown in the arena for the curious binary squared-minded lions to consume. Even though the epic struggles of the LGBTQ+ community worldwide have been immensely successful, it is also undeniable that, simultaneously, a new wave of hatred, intolerance, violence, queerphobia, racism and Islamophobia is on the surge everywhere, indirectly fed by economic recession, inequality, unemployment and welfare cuts. This is irresponsibly and criminally fuelled by politicians and media who try by all means available to enforce a fascist vision of society in which anybody who is not white, male, Christian, heterosexual and who does not follow the compulsory commandment of working to consume, pay taxes and produce children to send to war to slaughter other populations or to work in call centres on minimum wage, is not welcome. Ezra Furman and those fans – the vast majority – who understand and embrace his ethos say ‘FUCK!’ to all that and Ezra is in fact revered by 8-year-old little girls who handmake necklaces for him and by huge grown up men who enjoy shaking their bums to rock’n’roll. Tonight in Hebden it is a full 1.5 hours of raw power, sweat and rock’n’roll that puzzles some attendees who cannot fathom the unclassifiability of Ezra Furman’s genre, but ease their own uneasiness by placing those sounds in the ‘indiependent’ pool. Independent for sure, madam.
I cannot but repeat what I have already said in other reviews and in the interview I did with him last year. Ezra Furman is a unique, extraordinary artist who is boldly striving for greatness through the wit and authenticity in his lyrics and his defiant musical genre-bending, and he might as well easily join the Olympus of his own gods if he keeps being true to himself and if he keeps working on crafting what will go in musical history as an unmistakably Ezra Furman style.
I strongly recommend, if you haven’t already, that you go and see Ezra Furman and The Boy-Friends live (you can find the next tour dates here) and that you listen to these musicians. It is important to support independent artists – they need money! – to make sure they are able to preserve their artistic integrity, that they can live comfortably and also keep a little sanity. Support independent music!
I did not have a chance to write down the setlist during the gig and I saw two of their gigs in a row, so this setlist below is not in order nor is it complete or accurate, probably, but it gives you an idea of what happened, musically. A special mention is due of the now standard TomWaitsian version of ‘And Maybe God Is A Train’ and the incredibly open-hearted Townes van Zandt cover To Live is To Fly that some sweet soul has recorded and put online already. What a wonderful world.
- Teddy I’m Ready
- I Wanna Destroy Myself
- Haunted Head
- Tip Of A Match
- Little Piece Of Trash
- And Maybe God Is A Train
- Ordinary Life
- My Zero
- Lousy Connection
- Walk On In Darkness
- Can I Sleep In Your Brain?
- Ready Teddy (Little Richard cover)
- At The Bottom Of The Ocean
- Tell ‘Em All To Go To Hell
- Body Was Made
- Restless Year
- Anything Can Happen
Solo acoustic finale
- To Live is To Fly (Townes van Zandt cover)
- Cherry Lane
Thank you, Ezra Furman and the Boy-Friends, and thanks to their omnidoing tour manager Phil and The Trades Club for hosting this fantastic performance and making everything run smoothly and pleasantly. Long live Hebden Bridge!
You want a video? Here it is! https://www.instagram.com/p/BJiov_Yhhnr/