It was an unusual start. A bearded and afroed Israeli-Australian (or some such combination) leaves the stage and wades unplugged into the seated crowd. He finds an empty seat, stands on it, and plays a barely audible tune while rotating carefully. The boisterous crowd is forced to silence; soft words and strums swim by with each revolution. I couldn’t work out whether Old Man River’s opening stunt was a stroke of performative folly or genius – an uncertainty which captures neatly my larger impressions of this four-piece jolly-rock outfit.
Ohad Rein is a disarming front-man. He honestly recounts what was a difficult 2010 (‘Our second album wasn’t received well, we split up, I had a baby.’) and tells how a trip to a Yoga Farm with his partner resettled his musical nerve and verve, and got the band back on track. The fruits of this realignment are a mixed bowl. Proportion is a problem. Individual band members (on bass, piano and drums respectively) aren’t provided with enough isolation, aren’t given sufficient space in which to ease and make personal noise. Resultantly, too often the band produces a viscous block of sound, which is rather less than the sum of its parts.
As such, many of the songs have the same ring to them. And when you throw in the almost unchangingly romantic lyrics (‘I have no religion – but you’), one finds oneself craving a change of approach: a piano led piece, for example, or a drum-and-base-heavy song about Middle Eastern transitions to democracy – anything, in fact, other than more of the same.
That is not to say that Old Man River’s ‘same’ is bad. What Old Man River do they do well. The band finish their set with the popular song ‘La’ – which topped the Japanese airplay chart – a track whose lyrical peak is, you guessed it, a sequence of las. The song is worthy of that rather ominous superlative ‘catchy’, and suggests why Old Man River have enjoyed flashes of success without substantial critical acclaim or album sales. Essentially, there is enough fish in this river for a five-minute fix, but not enough for a feast.
It is perhaps telling that the most arresting and amusing moment in the set was when the pianist informed the crowd that he’s selling his Volvo. More of this tone, sincerity and ordinariness would have, paradoxically perhaps, enriched the body of music put forward on the night.