LIVE: ESG @ Jazz Cafe, Camden, 01.03.19

It may be ESG’s last UK tour, but the iconic DIY act are going out with a bang…

ESG are possibly the most famous band you’ve never heard of. They’ve been sampled by a list of artists too long to name – including TLC and Miles Davis – and yet they’ve stayed resolutely under the mainstream radar, instead inspiring a generation of female DIY musicians to play by their own rules.

And now, the all-female band, who started making music in the South Bronx in the early ’70s, are on their last ever UK tour. UK fans might remember that this was also what they said of their 2015 tour, so maybe don’t lose hope yet… For the penultimate show, they played Camden’s Jazz Café, with support from Leeds-based funk band Galaxians.

Maybe this really is the last tour, but it doesn’t feel like a sad farewell. The band’s inimitable, sparse mash-up of funk, punk and dance can be unnerving when you’re listening through headphones, but played live, it’s a definite party. Even ‘U.F.O’, whose surreal riff has been sampled by Nine Inch Nails amongst others, is given an upbeat makeover. It can be hard to get a room full of stoic London hipsters dancing, but ESG pull it off easily.

ESG have always been hard to pin down – they’ve been described as everything from proto-hip-hop, to post-punk, to dance – but you get the sense tonight that at the heart of their joyful style is a disregard for categorisation. They’re not interested in being a band who are easy to write about, they’re interested in getting you dancing (whilst perhaps unsettling you slightly at the same time).

The band never found mainstream success – not least because their record label, 99 Records, went bankrupt in the mid-eighties. Since then, they’ve been resolutely DIY. It’s perhaps slightly galling, then, that the artists who sample them, with or without clearance, have often gone on to find greater fame and fortune (though generally lesser critical acclaim). There’s an extra level of irritation in finding that tracks using ESG samples aren’t always ones they’d like to be associated with – as front woman Renee commented in an interview back in 2002, these have included “Really negative, woman-beating type of songs. I’ve been in situations with domestic violence, so I don’t appreciate any song glorifying domestic violence using my music. Go get your own damn music!

They might not be headlining Glastonbury, but they’ve done something arguably greater: they’ve paved the way for female DIY musicians who won’t colour inside the lines. Unconstrained by genre or the pressures of major label involvement, they’re free to enjoy the party.

Frances Salter
@goodcanarymusic

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