Expectations for William the Conqueror’s first headline London performance were high given that Ruarrri Joseph’s latest musical project has resulted in a debut album which is one of four nominees for UK Americana album of the year in 2018. The buzz around the three piece has already been building through a recent touring slot supporting Danny and the Champions of the World, and also with the band forming part of the UK cohort of the Americana Music Association’s delegation to Nashville’s Americana Music Festival. However, the MOTH Club – which is an acronym for the Memorable Order of Tin Hats – is about as low key a place as possible for a headline slot, a former ex-serviceman’s club converted into a nightlife and music venue, the only glitz provided by the glittery ceiling and a gold tinsel curtain by way of stage backdrop.
With a minimum of fanfare at 9pm, the three piece ease their way into the mid-tempo Pedestals from the Proud Disturber of the Peace album, Ruarri Joseph’s warning to his children not to worship him the way he did his own parents – and to recognise he has the same human frailties as they do. As an opening song, it also sounds something akin to a statement of defiance and independence in its lyrical content: “Some would say I’m beginning to crack, playing no regrets on twisted frets, with the sun on down on my crooked back.” What’s surprising from the outset is how accomplished the band sound, until you realise that Joseph has been performing for more than a decade now, his somewhat folkier former incarnation leading to a record deal with Atlantic in 2007. The onstage understanding and rapport he shares with Naomi Holmes on bass and Harry Harding on drums is immediately apparent.
Most of the set is predictably drawn from the debut album, which is of a consistently high standard standard throughout. Even better is the fact that foot stomping numbers such as Did You Wrong kick even louder in a live environment – with something of a bluesy-grunge edge – Joseph’s rich vocals on this song sounding similar to a younger Eric Clapton. While songs such as Mind Keeps Changing and Proud Disturber of the Peace have a looser bluesy feel, one of the stand out numbers, Tend to the Thorns, with its occasional grunge rock stylings, brings to mind the Kings of Leon fused with the Smashing Pumpkins. The contrast in musical styles is one of the band’s key strengths, Joseph’s guitar sound in particular seeming to encompass a number of styles interestingly blended together – a hard guitar rock feel married to a touch of electric folk. In chording, he makes good use of well chosen shapes in the bass strings that fit well musically with letting open strings ring quite often in a higher register.
Sorry is the Style brings the tempo down a notch with a lovely harmonica solo, while Manawatu – a soulful lament to his teen years spent growing up in New Zealand – builds through a rhythmic and repetitive guitar sound interspersed with bursts of harmonica before a whole band ensemble leads to a rousing finale. Perhaps the vast Manawatu gorge of the song title, which separated the sleepiness of the pastoral surrounds of Ruarri’s teenage home town from the excitement of the city he looked to escape to is also something of a metaphor for how Ruarri Joseph has left behind his folk-roots past for rockier pastures new. The back end of the set features the languid sounding, Cold Ontario, a great singalong bluesy number with its call and response “so they say” section, and “Cold Ontario” chorus, while the eponymous, Proud Disturber of the Peace recounts the recording of the album in Joseph’s garage and the impact it had on his neighbours.
Apparently, the MOTH club was set up with three basic principles: True Comradeship, Mutual Help, and Sound Memory – the latter to remember fallen comrades. Although their musical career is only just beginning, with such a strong foundation already established, William the Conqueror are likely to live long themselves in our own collective sound memory.