by Ian Mann
September 26, 2022
An energetic and enthusiastic young band whose music embraces jazz, soul, funk and blues. Their singing and playing is first rate and the writing and arranging is also of high quality.
Freshly Cut Grass, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 25/09/2022
Lee Nathaniel (lead vocals), Owain Hughes (guitar, backing vocals), Ross Hicks (piano, keyboard), Joe Carpentier (tenor sax) Harry Archer (trombone), Joe Bentley (trumpet), Josh Sharp (electric bass), Tom Williams (drums).
In August 2022 I enjoyed an excellent performance by the Cardiff based octet Freshly Cut Grass at Brecon Jazz Festival. I was therefore looking forward to seeing them again at Black Mountain Jazz and the Abergavenny based club was rewarded with a very decent turnout for a young band with a growing reputation for its exciting live performances.
I’ve extracted some of the biographical below from my review of the Brecon performance, which can be read in full as part of my Festival coverage here;
The band is led by guitarist Owain Hughes and comprises of students and alumni of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff. It was originally formed to play Hughes’ compositions for his final recital at RWCMD and continued to play together, building a considerable following in South Wales. FCG’s début album “Topiary” was recorded remotely by the band members during the 2020 Covid pandemic and released in February 2021. Hughes has cited his influences as including Frank Zappa, Snarky Puppy, Steely Dan, Grateful Dead and The Band.
At Brecon the band’s performance explored the soul and funk ends of the jazz spectrum but tonight’s show also introduced a more pronounced blues ingredient. Their programme combines convincing original songs with well chosen covers with bandleader Hughes responsible for the compositions and arrangements.
The Abergavenny performance saw one line up change from Brecon with Harry Archer taking over from Cat Eden on trombone. The repertoire was broadly similar to that at Brecon with many of the same songs being played, but the two set format also allowed the band to add further interesting cover material to their repertoire.
Nevertheless the focus was very much on original material and the band kicked off with the soulful and funky “Motivation”. Unfortunately it was immediately apparent that the lead vocals of the band’s singer Lee Nathaniel were buried far too deeply in the mix, a problem that continued through the following “Work To Be Done”. The instrumental soloing from Hughes on guitar, the French born Joe Carpentier on tenor sax and Ross Hicks at the venue’s upright acoustic piano were enjoyable enough but the indistinct vocals remained a serious problem, causing Nathaniel herself to raise the issue.
After a moment of consultation between the band and the sound crew the situation was subsequently much improved, but even with Nathaniel’s vocal mic pushed up to the max she was still occasionally drowned out by the horns. I don’t recall this being such an issue at Brecon, but of course every venue has its own acoustic idiosyncrasies.
The problems were obviously unsettling for the band members and audience alike, and also unexpected, the sound at the Melville is usually excellent. That said FCG did represent something of a challenge for the engineers, an eight piece band, therefore larger than usual, with a mix of electric and acoustic instruments.
Both Nathaniel and the listening audience were happier with the sound on a version of the Song “Back in Stride”, a 1985 hit for the American soul and funk band Maze. Now the true power and soulfulness of Nathaniel’s voice could finally appreciated. The horns were also featured extensively with Bentley, Archer and Carpentier all soloing and with Tom Williams, a solid presence throughout, enjoying a drum feature towards the close.
At Brecon the band was temporarily pared down to a five piece (voice, guitar, keys, bass, drums) and this exercise was repeated here, again suggesting that FCG have the option of performing whole gigs as a quintet. They seem to have a particular fondness for the songs of the British born, New Orleans based pianist and vocalist Jon Cleary and the Brecon set included a couple of Cleary covers. Tonight was to be no different with the quintet first tackling the Cleary song “When You Get Back”, the performance distinguished by Nathaniel’s powerful, blues tinged vocal performance and Hicks’ acoustic piano solo. A highly talented young musician Hicks has recently been working in a vocal / piano duo with BMJ’s own Debs Hancock.
FCG dug deeper into the blues repertoire with an impressive cover of T-Bone Walker’s classic “Stormy Monday”, with Nathaniel again delivering a strong and soulful vocal as Hughes, Hicks and Sharp shared the instrumental honours.
The horns returned for the original song “Life I’m Working On” with Carpentier featuring on saxophone.
The band had started to hit their stride by now and it was almost a shame that the first set had to end with Hughes announcing “London In His Eyes” as the final item of the opening half. Introduced by a combination of guitar and electric bass this proved to be an excellent example of the quality of Hughes’ songwriting, with Nathaniel’s singing of the evocative lyrics complemented by the instrumental soloing of Bentley on trumpet and Carpentier on tenor.
Further adjustments were made to the sound balance during the break and the quality was to improve even more in the second half as the octet kicked off with the appropriately titled “Funk Enigma” with the impressive Hicks featuring on piano.
The band slimmed down to a quintet again for the new song “What’s This Thing?” with Hicks deploying an organ sound on his electric keyboard. This was another song to exhibit a strong blues element, a quality that seems to be increasingly informing FCG’s sound.
This was further emphasised on the quintet’s cover of Cleary’s song “Cheatin’ On You”, which saw Hicks moving back to acoustic piano. Nathaniel delivered another powerful vocal performance as Hughes soloed on guitar, his playing again exhibiting a strong blues and rock influence.
The final number in the quintet format was the gospel infused “People Get Ready”, composed by the late, great Curtis Mayfield (1942-99) and originally performed by his group The Impressions. Although written as recently as 1965, at the height of the Civil Rights era, the song sounds much older and has the power and wisdom of an old time spiritual. Despite their tender years FCG more than did it justice with Nathaniel’s emotive vocals augmented by instrumental solos from Hughes on guitar and Hicks on acoustic piano.
The horns returned for the band’s intriguing funk style arrangement of the Derek & The Dominos song “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?”, another song introduced by the combination of guitar and five string electric bass. Nathaniel’s vocals were augmented by a horn arrangement and solos from Hughes on guitar and Hicks on piano.
The second set concluded with the original song “Roots” with Hicks again deploying an organ sound and sharing the solos with Hughes and drummer Williams. The lyrics had something of a psychological theme as Nathaniel sang of “getting to the roots of the problem”.
With the sound quality much improved the second set had proved to be much more enjoyable than the first and by now the audience had truly warmed to this energetic and enthusiastic young band. “Hoppin’”, with its upbeat lyrics and South African Township vibe was effectively an encore and included solos from Hicks on piano and Hughes on guitar plus an unaccompanied ‘horn chorale’. It represented a good way to round off what had largely been a very enjoyable evening.
Overall FCG were very well received once the technical difficulties had been largely surmounted, although some observers noted that the young group is still a “work in progress”, which is probably fair comment at this stage of their career. Nevertheless their singing and playing is first rate and the writing and arranging is also of high quality. They could however be more ‘professional’ in terms of their overall presentation. Nevertheless the pluses very much outweigh the minuses and the sound problems were not really of the band’s making and were something that was eventually sorted out, by and large.
Interestingly the quintet numbers probably worked the best this time round and proved to be the songs that highlighted Nathaniel’s voice at its best. The horn arrangements, which had so impressed me at Brecon, almost seemed intrusive at times, but this was largely due to the technical difficulties. Carpentier, Archer and Bentley still impressed as individual soloists but as a section they sometimes seemed to be ‘competing’ with the singer, something again caused by technical issues. FCG is a song based band and you really do need to be able to hear the vocals.
Technical issues aside this was another good performance from FCG and the band continues to exhibit much potential for the future.
“Topiary” is available via FCG’s Bandcamp page.
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