Joe Camilleri and his band put on a rocking performance
Midway through performing his second tune at Dubai’s The Music Room on Friday, Joe Camilleri’s five decades on the road are laid bare for all to see.
Amid the haze of brooding, tremolo-tremor Link Wray-style chords that announce Endless Sleep – the title track of the Australian songwriter’s latest release – his D-string snaps. Without a roadie in sight, the 67-year-old rocker restrings and tunes his guitar without missing a beat, all the while bellowing soulfully as his band The Black Sorrows rock on. Midway through the next track he plugs his retro, red hollowbody guitar back in – and the first dancers take to the floor. A few tunes later and the area in front of the stage is packed.
Catching the Sorrows’ brand of raw, rootsy, hip-shaking rock ’n’ roll feels like discovering the best bar band in the world. But at the same time, one knows these guys could, and perhaps should, be playing at much larger venues.
The mostly antipodean audience adores Camilleri. “I’ve come all this way, and I’m still playing to the same freaking crowd,” he jokes, before kicking off the swampy rockabilly groove of The Return of the Voodoo Sheiks.
Camilleri’s saxophone comes out for 1989’s The Chosen Ones, a mellow, funk-blues number that wouldn’t sound out of place in an elevator. There are dated head nods to reggae with The Shape I’m In and Hit and Run – a floor-filling hit from 1979 recorded with his first band, Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons. Country influences glisten in 1990 hit Harley and Rose, while swaggering The Crack Up, from a year earlier, climaxes in a collective riff on Jimi Hendrix’s Foxy Lady.
Camilleri sounds best when he casts these radio anthems aside – and reaches back through the past to the deep-down, pre-rock ’n’ roll that inspired his youth – there are majestic covers of JJ Cale’s Devil in Disguise and Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee, copping the vintage swagger of Chicago’s Chess Records.
There’s another homage worth noting. It’s easy to hear Van Morrison in the blue-eyed soul of Camilleri’s croon, and the debt is laid bare with two tributes – a stripped-back Tupelo Honey and a rabble-rousing Bright Side of the Road. But I saw Morrison once, about 12 years ago, and he was poor – Camilleri, playing to an audience one-tenth of the size, killed it.
It’s not just for prosperity that Camilleri takes equal billing with the backing band he has led since 1983. Like Crazy Horse or the E Street Band, his razor sharp act relies on the presence of such a sympathetic foil, years of mutual combat visible in the shared lines on the five men’s faces. Guitarist Claude Carranza stood out in a feather-tipped trilby and waistcoat, as he wrestled post-Hendrix, wah-drenched solos from his battered Stratocaster.
Hendrix might be the newest influence this band can claim – with most of their music buried in the R&B and blues of the 1950s, it’s like imagining a world where The Beatles never happened. Which raises an interesting point: From McCartney to Jagger, we are used to seeing pension-age rock legends atop pedestals in stadiums.
Camilleri is a living, kicking example of a rock legend who never quite made it – but breathes the fire as though he did. One can easily imagine a world where Camilleri is filling arenas – and his idol Morrison, perhaps, is gigging at The Music Room.