James Attlee talked to iconoclastic duo the PLYMOUTH BRETHREN.
Are they The Plymouth Brethren?" a middle-aged i man on the fringe of the crowd asks his female companion. "I think so," she replies hesitantly. "They've changed a bit haven't they?"
On stage are not a group of be-suited members of the somewhat dour evangelical sect, but two young dudes in baseball caps, Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts holding their audience in the palm of their hands without the benefit of a barrage of equipment...just two acoustic guitars, one of which occasionally makes way for a trumpet, two perfectly matched voices, and a deadpan sense of humour.
Christian music has seen its share of acoustic duos, and if the usual influences had been on display - the Everleys, Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel retreads - there would be little to hold the attention of this writer. But in the case of the PBs there is more that's unusual than their tongue-in-cheek name. The influences that shine through in their live performance are Jazz and soul singers, with even a touch of samba thrown in. "Anyone here over 30?" asks Jonathan Elvin cruelly, picking up his trumpet. A few' faltering hands are raised. "Then you might know this song. It's called The Girl From Ipanema."
"We didn't actually know the Girl From Ipanema" deadpans Crispin Holland, "but there was one from Portsmouth I was quite interested in."
"Trouble was, she was my girlfriend," adds Jonathan right on cue, before they launch into their version of the Astrud Gilberto classic.
The Brethren really are from Portsmouth, "mostly" - Crispin arrived at the age of three - but are now based in London and Bristol, where Jon has been studying for his finals at university. This makes for some inconvenience - do they rehearse over the phone, I wondered?
"Crispin usually sends me a cassette of stuff and I learn it from that," Jon explains. "The trouble is, my tape machine's a bit fast, so I learnt it all a semitone too high - so I had to redo all the trumpet parts, which was pretty interesting." The frustrations of the artistic life. What about those influences - will they own up to a jazz feel in their phrasing?
"Yes, I'm a jazz fan," Crispin admits. "Our main influences for singing are Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Michael McDonald and David Sylvian." Now that's what I call diverse..."And Van Morrison," adds Jon, "I love the way he just flings phrases away, sort of throws them into the audience"...And Astrud Gilberto, of course?
"Oh of course," agrees Crispin. "She's not actually in the band at the moment...I'm filling in for her as best I can," Jon explains.
"Well you play trumpet just as well as she did anyway," I tell him - it's so important to encourage young performers. Are they afraid of the inevitable Phil And John comparisons being an acoustic duo? "Well I've never really heard their stuff so I couldn't say," says Crispin. Well, that clears that one up.
But behind the joking there's a serious purpose. Crispin Holland and Jonathan Elvin have been performing together for about 16 months, and Holland's lyrics speak penetratingly of the Christian life. The song "When Will I Ever Learn" introduces one of the group's consuming passions. "I cried when I wrote that," Crispin says. "When I wrote the line 'When will I ever learn that unfulfilled potential is dishonouring to you' I was on the train, and I had tears in my eyes."
"People have so much potential, and in schools, churches and everywhere potential is quashed all the time," Jon interjects, "that's why most people are so boring! People could be so much more interesting and interested, but they're not taught to be that, they're told to enjoy quiz shows..."
"People have got an enormous potential to be creative and they just don't realise it's there," Crispin continues. "Here I am quite a lot later than school, starting to create things that I never dreamed of, writing songs and doing bits of sculpture, creative writing and a lot of things I never thought were possible."
Another bugbear are Christians who too readily swallow the teachings of church leaders as gospel, without exercising their brain cells or their discernment. These unfortunates are dubbed "a menagerie of fools who follow a new guru" in the song "God Changes Man". Not that the Brethren are anti-church, very much the opposite. "But they should be teaching people to think, not just say yes," Chrispin explains. "What we're aiming at is a thinking faith and individuality in God."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.