The Charlatans : Los Angeles El Rey Theatre

Their new material is lost in muddy sound, but Burgess and the boys still put on a defiantly funky extravaganza...

Tonight could have been so special. A chance for The Charlatans to treat the fans to a sneak preview of their new album ‘Wonderland’ and play a few hits along the way. A chance to unveil the band’s much talked about ‘new direction’. But instead the fans are treated to a car crash. Strictly speaking, it’s not the band’s fault – unfortunately tonight they seem to have somehow hooked up with the soundman from hell.

All through the show guitars and microphones are feeding back. The vocals lie buried in the mix, bludgeoned by a booming bottom end. As if The Charlatans aren’t up against the odds as it is – a band now split between two continents, attempting to deviate from their signature sound after 12 years – tonight they’re faced with this additional hurdle.

But to their credit, they soldier on, despite the fact it’s on the eagerly anticipated new songs that the damage is the worst. ‘A Man Needs To Be Told’, which on record sparkles with touches of pedal steel and piano, becomes flat MOR fodder. ‘And If I Fall’ has all its subtleties beaten into submission. Tim Burgess meanwhile, slides further into Curtis Mayfield territory. With the large floppy cap and ’70s shades as the visual, he’s now adopted the patented Curtis falsetto vocal. It’s most obvious on ‘Judas’, though again Burgess struggles to emerge from the murky wall of sound. ‘Superfly’ it sure ain’t. ‘Love Is The Key’, with its funky groove, seems a bit more sprightly, while ‘You’re So Pretty – We’re So Pretty’ seems plundered from mid-’70s Rolling Stones.

The interesting electronic beats and loops of ‘Wonderland’ seem lost in the live show, as everything seems slotted into a cookie cutter format. Which is maybe why many of the older tunes work the best tonight. ‘How High’ leaps out of the clutter, with its swirling organ, and ‘North Country Boy’ makes you realise just how great The Charlatans can be. And the intense psychedelic workout of ‘Sproston Green’, which closes out the show, highlights what could have been.

Fortunately this is all a test run – a sampling before the real work begins in September. Then, hopefully, The Charlatans live show will fulfil the expectations of the album title… ‘Wonderland’.

Jason Reynolds