LIVE: Chuck Ragan @ The 100 Club, London

By Katherine Allvey

It could be a coincidence that there’s a storm raging outside London’s 100 Club, but it’s equally as likely that Chuck Ragan’s gravelly roar has commanded the heavens to open. The Hot Water Music frontman turned professional punk rock grizzly bear sold out the historic basement venue incredibly quickly, drawing plaid-clad Londoners underground for an evening of atmospheric, upcycled acoustic punk. With the blood red walls of the cramped space plastered with framed photos of past glories, Ragan’s in good company… and that’s not including his stadium-filling bestie who dropped in as a bonus support act and encore-sharer. 

Only one member of Ragan’s usual touring band, the Camaraderie, has made it to the UK, but by reducing his backup to Todd Beene on lap steel, we gain infinitely in terms of atmosphere and world building. There’s no distraction from the purity of Ragan’s unpretentious intention and his mighty, full voice. ‘Nothing Left To Lose’ builds slowly like an aching sunrise across lonesome plains of guitar which echo to the horizon, and ‘Bedroll Lullaby’ blooms full and lush like a tapestry of longing. Ragan checks in on us between songs to see if we haven’t been swept away by the elemental power of his growl. He speaks quickly and quietly in a thick accent, and grins broadly when he spots someone having a good time in one of his rare pauses between songs. Somehow, the vocalist is exactly how you’d expect from his music, and a complete contrast at the same time. His humble demeanour only makes the vastness of ‘Vagabond’ more shocking; it’s louder and more forceful than the studio recordings suggest, invested with a power like a prophecy from an ancient epic, and finishes with a poignant twist of regret.

“Thank you, friend,” Ragan nods graciously as if he knows each of us personally after ‘The Flame and The Flood’, a song that casts campfire shadows into the night like the dying embers glowing red. He certainly feels like we’re all close to him, taking a moment to ‘pay respects to the entire Hot Water Music family’ of which the three hundred of us are a part. This year is his band’s thirtieth anniversary, and to celebrate a full Hot Water Music UK tour coming up next month (and rumours of a new album), Ragan offers us re-fashioned versions of the punk side of his back catalogue.

‘State Of Grace’ is rich in reassurance, a heartfelt stripping away of preconception and memory sewn together lovingly with tumbling steel notes. The power of the song sends Ragan off-balance: he flings his entire body in an imaginary pit, then centres himself before each verse as if he remembers his status as punk statesman. ‘Habitual’ cracks with the sounds of country glaciers forming as Ragan throws his wail to the walls. “I’m ok,” he chants to himself on the chorus in a desperate mantra. His overwhelming fervour for his solo music returns on ‘Meet You In The Middle’ and he jolts like his lyrics are electrocuting him, weaving harmonies to create a majestic homecoming.

“Let’s get him up here… this guy is going places,” Ragan smiles before Frank Turner joins him onstage. First support Jess Guise (also known as Turner’s better half) had to cancel her appearance at the eleventh hour, giving Turner the opportunity to step in for her and test out his new material from his upcoming album, ‘Undefeated’. Turner can’t stop cracking up in laughter when he’s brought onstage; he doesn’t know the words to the song Ragan’s playing. “You never heard of Karaoke?” Ragan asks him, trying not to chuckle himself.

It seems fitting for a show that glorifies friendship in the theme of nearly every song to include an encore which makes two longstanding comrades-in-arms giggle for five minutes. Once composure is restored, the two throatiest vocalists on the ‘punk survivors’ scene rip into ‘The Boat’, and any darkness lingering at the periphery of our minds is banished by the blazing strength of the sound they rip from their chests. We’ll all make it through the night with a song like this one as the lighthouse to bring us home. As the final chord fades and dies, the much taller Turner hugs Ragan tightly to his chest and kisses the top of his head. We would all love to be able to do the same.

It’s been a decade since the Revival Tour brought the frontmen together, and Ragan’s been in all of our lives for much longer through his many musical incarnations. We’re stronger together, and capable of anything when our bellies and hearts are full of the fire Chuck Ragan lights with his show.