Sleazy Skanking: Genre Slags At The Frog And Fiddle

Three glassy-eyed ragamuffins peek suspiciously at me through greasy dreadlocks as I swagger through their spliff’s aroma towards the Frog and Fiddle, feeling a little high-and-mighty with the prospect of blagging my way in as ‘press’ for the first time and thinking it’s probably safe to assume these lot are heading to the same reggae-infused stoner jam as I am. Tonight my good pals Emmett Brown are warming the stage for Bristol-based Zen Elephant and Brighton’s rabble-rousing Samsara; a motley crew of some of the most fantastically outrageous genre slags to have ever bounced the Frog’s sticky floors.

After procuring a watery pint I enter the modestly populated Barn, half expecting a whistling janitor to come sweeping through at any point. Emmett Brown, eccentric as the good doc himself, seem un-phased and lash into a whirlwind of hard-skanking Sublime-style ska, boisterous rhymes, dizzying psychedelia and crunching guitars; smoothing out the edges with hints of disco, dub and funk. At times the style soup is a little over-whelming, as in the chaotic jam of ‘Big Fish’ or the paranoid neurosis of brand new ‘Pyramids of Mars’, but its difficult to be critical in the face of such a slapstick sense of self-deprecating humour: the parody Led Zep solo section in ‘Big Fish’ (with the lads sabotaging each others’ solos and giving no regard whatsoever to hitting the right notes), along with the tongue-in-cheek quirkiness of their lyrical subject matter, are nothing short of hilarious.

By the time Zen Elephant man the stage the Brown have charmed a sizeable chunk of the smoking area’s patrons away from their cancer research and there’s a buzzing vibe inside. Zen Elephant are equally fascinating in their genre cocktail, mixing European kookiness into their unlikely blend of reggae and folk and jittering about between various instruments like excited school kids when teacher wheels out the ‘percussion trolley’. Their set is instantly memorable, not least for frontman Jeremy’s curiously unusual set of pipes (which make up for his mildly irritating habit of checking how we are after almost every song!).

However, as the warmed-up and now considerably more tanked-up crowd make no bones in expressing, it’s all about Samsara tonight. Despite looking like a gaggle of hash-glazed squatters these guys are smooth-playing and tighter than a duck’s arse. ‘Samsara’ is Tibetan for ‘flowing through states of existence’ - a perfect name for a band with so much transcendental power. The set starts off spacious and dub-like, centred around a volley of creepy circus riffs that would sound at home on a Specials record. Each song has a different quirk: one a bossa nova saunter, another a jerky Stevie Wonder-esque clav motif, a reggae-defying 6/4 time signature flavouring yet another. The set builds to a climax of pistol-whipping ska, ending just as it looks like frontman Jez is going to be butt naked if they get another encore (his hat and hoody have already fallen off and it looks like the jeans are next!).

The Frog’s resident sound wizard Mike does a sterling job at the desk, and the line-up are so complementary of each other it would be wrong not to give a literary nod to the booking team as well. All three bands play with jaw-dropping dynamic intensity and an eclecticism that’s both engaging and natural, rarely sounding scholarly or forced. However, the one thing that punctures the music’s credibility for me is the lead singers’ adopted accents - Barton from Emmett Brown’s occasional hint of southern US drawl, Jeremy from Zen Elephant’s hint of King of the Proles Londoner tones and both Barton and Jez from Samsara’s blatant ‘Kingston shanty toon’ impressions would probably all be better left out (not least because Jez is white and heavily dreadlocked). Niggles aside, by far the best gig the Frog’s hosted in a while. More please.