Gig Review: The Undercover Hippy @ Thekla 20/5/17
by Polly Hember
The Undercover Hippy, the reggae-hip-hop outfit fronted by Billy Rowan, launched their new album Truth & Fiction, ending their May tour at Bristol’s Thekla on a high. Anyone who has heard of or had the pleasure of seeing Rowan perform knows that his live sets never disappoint, with his energetic and playful performance and a brilliantly unique unification of rap, roots reggae, hip hop, pop and folky singer-song writing. Confronting the current issues in the middle East, America and the UK, Rowan’s renegade protest music has always succeeded in delivering astute and provocative songs with a fantastic optimism.
Presenting his just-launched new album, the set was full of contemporary material that resonates sharply with the present political turbulence and upset – dedicating songs to Nigel Farage (“UKIP telling me”), Theresa May (“Truth and Fiction”), bankers (“Who’s In Debt To Who”) and more. Interrogating our remiss mentalities in a world that favours the wealthy and elite, presents misinformation daily and whose future looks murky, with a snap-election in the UK, Brexit in sights and four more years of Trump’s presidency in America – Rowan’s music is intelligent, thought-provoking and critically important at times like these. Delivered with catchy rifts and his boisterous rapping style, supported by an unbelievably tight band with a big sound to delivers big, weighty messages with an optimistic and entertaining light-heartedness.
Rowan’s brilliant sense of humour can be seen explicitly in mischievous new songs like “A Mate Like That”, bringing personal tales into the set as well as public ones. A blend of public and personal, sharply serious and playfully ludic, there was also an assortment of both old and new. Favourites from their 2014 album Monkey Suit were scattered throughout the tight set, the highlights being “Money Money Money”, the immensely enjoyable call-and-response, interactive “Long Way Down”, “Borders” and (of course), the jokey, high energy “Boyfriend”. Breaking a guitar string towards the last few songs of the set meant for a brilliant acoustic guitar rendition of “Rise and Fall”, another gem from the new album.
Thekla was the perfect venue for the album launch, full of adoring Bristol fans that almost knew Rowan’s lyrics better than he did. Packed out with moving bodies that needed no encouragement, dancing and swaying from the onset, the band saved “Last Chance To Dance” until the encore, leaving the night, the album launch and the end of their May tour on a superb high.
Make sure to check out the new album Truth & Fiction and on the festival circuit this summer. His lively, renegade reggae folk is truly electrifying and should not be missed.