Sunday, May 31, 2009

One Love

One love, one heart, lets get together and feel alright – Bob Marley

Baaba Maal and his musicians have all exited stage-right (or is that stage-left, I never can tell) yet the boards of the old music hall theatre known as Shepherds Bush Empire remains in semi-darkness; nor have the house lights haven’t come up as one would normally expect them to do.

The drums and all the other accoutrements that comprise the back-line is still in place as sundry stage crew scuttle and scamper about, placing chairs in different places and adjusting microphones like crews always do. One, two; one two, testing… one, two three. Back right, from where Doe Phillips, Oasis’ tour manager and I are standing, someone is assembling a set of small hand-drums on top of one of the keyboard-risers. The lights remain low.

That’s a really quick turnover intones the voice of experience in my ear, I don’t think the set is over yet… do you?
No, I don’t…
I murmur back into the leonine mane of curls standing beside me, it looks like something else is about to happen ‘cos normally the MC comes on and does his bit at this point.
Oh, you mean the big black guy with the head that looks likes its been freshly varnished. Who is he?
He’s Count Prince Miller, one of the first of the JA sound system pioneers from outta Kingston from aeons ago.
Count Prince…?
The eyebrows that belong to the mass of golden-brown tresses shoot upwards in disbelieving curiosity.
You’ve been hanging around the Gallagher brothers too long, I reckon. Its a sort of self-aggrandisement thing that they did way back when in Jamaica, a kind of self-promotion thing… my voice is drowned out as the level of hubbub around us increases several notches.

Barry Reynolds walks back on stage clutching an acoustic guitar, settles down, plugs himself in and starts gently picking out the chords to what sounds suspiciously like the opening to Redemption Song. A keyboard player wanders on and positions himself deep in the gloom of the semi-lit stage as Baaba Maal – mega-star throughout all of Africa – re-enters from our right… is that stage left… maybe it is.

Then a shout… a couple of high-pitched whistles rip through the clamour… before all-about screaming and shrieking kicks in … and then the hall absolutely erupts.

A small bloke in entirely preposterous and (to my way of thinking) totally superfluous, almost-red-but-not-quite-pink, Channel (sun?)-glasses wearing a russet coloured, black embroidered, leather jacket shambles on; his head having recently subjected itself to a fairly close farmer’s-crop. A grey-blonde tall chap follows wearing a bemused expression and a bass guitar; the elegantly angular features of another in tight black jeans walks purposely out of the shadows and up onto the keyboard riser and immediately starts tapping out a rhythm – not a man to mess about, one who prefers to get on with the job in hand. Stage left another over-sized acoustic guitar walks out wearing a tight-fitting-black-tea-cosy on his head.

By now, the packed house is going completely mental; everyone with a camera phone is holding it in the air; clicking away in the general direction of the stage, more in hope than good judgement. Auto-focus a-go-go.

I’m nudged by a cider-sipping couple to my left who seem curiously unmoved by what’s occurring just a few yards away. Who’s that? I’m asked. Who’s just come on..?
Oh… that’s U2.
he says as she intently drinks in the unfolding spectacle. Bloody hell, didn’t see that they were advertised for tonight.
Well, that’s true, they weren’t; but then again, its hardly a surprise, is it, I think to myself.

I’m remembering back to a conversation with Dennis Sheehan (their own tour manager of ultra-long service to the cause) about a month ago over lunch when he’d said, y’know, I really don’t think they’ll want to miss out on all of that – we’d been talking about the, then upcoming, Island50 celebrations – I’m sure they’ll find a way of doing… something.

The song has now identifiably turned into One with Edge and Barry trading chords as Baaba Maal and Bono embrace before trading vocal lines. Its curiously magical; a little shambolic yet – as under rehearsed as it probably is, the untidy rough edges somehow gives the tune even more resonance; a song with Africa at its core, one of the great modern day hymns – musical redemption from the pandemic of Aids throughout that nation.

The song naturally segues into a couple of choruses of One Love which, in a strange yet entirely appropriate way, seems to have become a metaphor for this entire week of shows before Baaba exits stage-right (or is that left, again); Barry and Edge shake hands and Bono asks no one in particular if there is time for one more.

As the crowd howl in unison and with an attitude of – this is our playpen now, the Irish four piece launch into a spectacularly average semi-acoustic rendition of Vertigo – for all the while sounding like a covers band attempting a tune far beyond their capabilities. It doesn’t matter; the crowd go berserk – they’ve had the treat of their lives.

The Thursday night half-time oranges beckon.

What with one thing and another, its been quite a remarkable week – watching my seedlings grow while, at the same time, stepping back in musical time.

One that has been interspersed with a series of AlphaBetaMusica appointments as well as garnering more attention to this clutch of songs in my bag. Songs that are now eliciting clear responses that undoubtedly prove I’m not the only one to hear their potential. After a fair bit of time away from the coal-face, its good to realise that one can still trust one’s ears.

Besides, with a few more doors being nudged open on my behalf by converts to the cause, being able to present what was Project-X face to face to those higher up the table than I normally sit is starting to prove its worth. Running way past their allotted time-spans has become routine for meetings as the scope of the whole is properly realised by those I’ve been facing.

Further to which, interesting sub-strategies have begun to emerge, most especially with regard to the seeding of this little blighter.

Am I going to detail any of that now – absolutely not… All I’ll say is – there is a line on the horizon; a line that’s slowly but surely coming into sharp relief.

In the midst of which, there’s also been the minor distraction of the man in the gabardine suit; is his bow-tie really a camera? Not this one – his suit was a curious shade of mauve tinged with plum… not quite blue, not really purple yet with a splash of lavender-wine, deadly nightshade thrown in for good measure… somewhere in between something and something else altogether.

The Fedora was, needles to say, worn at just the correct rake and the man’s three Coconuts looked young enough to be his daughters. Its entirely possible that at least one of them was.

Their performance – the opening set of the Island50 shows – closed with one of the big hits, Annie (I’m Not Your Daddy); the moves were as slick as ever, the band (all new bar one) had been drilled to perfection; the high-sheen of their eighties choreography morphing seamlessly into 21st century big band swagger proving great music is, indeed, timeless.

Late night and August Darnell is holding court in his dressing room on the third floor backstage at the Empire while eating a noodle and chicken takeaway; the suit in which he’s wowed the audience earlier has been carefully packed away.

The shirt on his previously sweat-soaked back has been replaced by one that’s been freshly starched; his meticulously selected tie has been tied carefully and knotted perfectly; the trousers to this particular brown suit are hoisted to precisely the correct height with a pair of discreetly patterned braces, the creases are, of course, razor sharp. His brown and cream brogues gleam from being freshly polished and the slightly larger than pork-pie sized straw hat has been tipped to an angle that can only be described as jaunty.

Darnell detects a slight movement in the doorway from out the corner of his eye and turns. Holy fxxk. Storeyville. Its been three hundred and twenty-eight years.

He gets up, wipes a overhanging noodle from his mouth with a freshly laundered handkerchief and advances, arms outstretched, grinning wildly. Damn… You look good, my man – pronouncing the word good as only a man out of Harlem by way of the Bronx can. He glances up and down. Your shoes are clean too; and that… is a very fine coat indeed. We embrace… its as if twenty-something years have passed-by in a split second.

I step into the muddled chaos of the dressing-room and find a chair, place the hat-box that’s occupying it on a window-sill and turn to face the man the world knows as Kid Creole. I was going to wear a hat but I didn’t want to upstage you. You’ve still got that ridiculous, same old pencilled-in moustache, I see… The guffaw that follows sounds like a cross between a man choking on something unpleasant caught in his oesophagus and a throaty, wheezing, chuckle. The crinkle-chip laughter lines around his eyes confirm the latter.

He’s right, it has been a long time but… no matter the years, the kinship, the solid-bond of friendship that was forged those many, many years back remains unbroken. The banter chatters back and forth like a revolving sten-gun on automatic for the next twenty minutes. Later we swap cell-‘phone numbers as his chicken and noodles lay idle and forgotten on an upturned flight-case at his knees and make loose arrangements to meet for lunch in a couple of days. Later that night I text, saying how good it was to see him and that lunch on Thursday would be a pretty beezer idea since, by then, I’d be hungry.

Thursday and I’m just out of a lengthy meeting and into the leaky cauldron known as Tottenham Court Road and a text arrives on my ‘phone. Storeyville, can’t do lunch today, have to go up North (Manchester Liverpool) to trim my moustache. Call you when I return. Great to see c ya again. We need 248 hours to catch up! X. No matter, time to head off to Kensington anyway, I’m in as urgent need of an internet café as a man with an upset stomach is of a public convenience.

Outside in the bright afternoon sun, a gleaming black car-front with what looks like some kind of customised extension behind pulls up; a vehicle that began life as a Mini but which has evidently been elongated – it probably has a name but, not being car minded, I’ve no clue as to the exact marquee. The man who steps out, ignores the nearby parking meter and wanders unconcernedly into the reception area and tosses something resembling a car-key onto the table.

CB, who began Island life out of the back of his Mini Cooper and without whom this whole Island50 thing wouldn’t have come about isn’t someone who much bothers with parking meters. I can’t imagine its because he knows someone else will look after something that mundane, I rather think that its just because parking meters are way off his radar. He greets everyone in sight with a smile and a handshake, asking opinions of the previous evening’s event.

I’d only gone down to that particular show only to see Steel Pulse – not, I admit, being much interested in The Fratellis. Overrunning somewhat after another late afternoon meeting, a message had been left that my ticket was to be collected. No problem, been used to this for many years and the routine is always the same. Stride manfully up to the necessary window, give over one’s name, smile nicely and… all is well in the world. But not this time, drat and double that – no mention of my name on any guest list, no ticket in an envelope squirreled away behind the grill at all. Drat and then some.

I stand and ponder… and, mid-ponder in marches Mark Ellen, the Word magazine’s editor and dead-ringer for the Beatle that plays his bass guitar left-handed. We exchange greetings and after a rapid explanation that no one can find my ticket, I take up his offer of being his plus-one for the evening and we head for the bar. Ten minutes later and a rumble of bass-thunder announces that Steel Pulse are taking the stage; we take up our pints and walk the walk.

An hour later and there’s a slight sense of musical let-down; they were good but not great. David Hinds – the only surviving front-man had not (in our combined view) got the set right at all – too much from unknown recent work when (we reckoned) most of the assembled would have wanted (like us) to have been treated to songs from the earlier Island outings. True, the mighty Handsworth Revolution got aired but too many crucial cuts from their illustrious back-catalogue such as Klu Klux Klan and Tribute To The Martyrs were confined to the past that night.

That said, the band were as tight as a tick and David, himself, looked quite extraordinary – clad in raiment that would have suited Joseph down to a tee, this predominantly purple and silver striped coat of many colours was floor length and bottomed out with impeccably-shone black shoes – not for him Rasta-foot-wear. His locks were completely another thing altogether.

From times past, David’s locks tended to grow straight up… which always struck me as being particularly uncomfortable having that weight of hair vertically ascending from one’s head. Indeed, Tony the Greek tells a story of transporting him to a radio interview one time and having to open his car’s sunroof in order to more properly accommodate David’s up-standing locks. Rasta ina Red Cortina-styleee.

Time has seen that gravity has had it’s pull and David’s locks now more resemble tree trunks sprouting out of the top and sides of his head, cascading down like so much Bonsai root-formation. In fact, throughout the week, locks of varying length and wonder have been on display… hey, this is Island50 – what did you expect? Night one and man about Ladbroke Grove, Don Letts is standing at the barrier, hailing anyone and everyone in sight; his have been unfurled from his outsized-cap that he wore at the Portland Place party and, fluttering in the night air, reach almost to his ankles now.

Ahh yes, that first evening… after the aforementioned break, Sly & Robbie fronted up the Taxi Gang or Compass Point All Stars (take your pick, both bands were pretty much identical) and showed the world how to dub-it-up rub-a-dub style on stage. The sound was, in a single word, enormous; rhythm metronomic with horn-stabs and clattering percussion competing in echoes. They took the likes of Black Uhuru’s Shine Eye Gal and eviscerated it, turned it on its head and then, Frankenstein-like re-assembled it before one’s very eyes like a dub-master class.

With no let-up, Aswad came on and mashed it up yet again with a trilogy of hits before Brinsley led out the I-Threes; Rita Marley as Queen of Reggae in the obligatory ball-gown of red, gold and green, a statuesque Marcia Griffiths at her far-side and new I-Three Erica Newell more soberly clad on the other. With Brins taking Bob’s own role, it was like going back in time with the I-Threes’ call and response to their leader; One Love sounding as sweet as ever it did.

A brief pause before something called Tinchy Stryder takes the stage – apparently he’s at the forefront of a musical genre called ‘grime’. Thirty seconds of grunt-rapping and my nicotine habit was badly in need of a fix. Outside in the cooling air, there are three blokes by the barrier, with a sizeable spliff on the go; it appears that they too are not much enamoured by Mr Stryder and his bought-at-Woolworths attitude-rap either.

Then came Grace. Its highly probable that everyone in attendance knew that Miss Jones was going to appear in a costume that would, quite literally, pale everyone else’s into insignificance. Perhaps that’s why Darnell had opted for the plum-purple gabardine; maybe that’s why Rita had gone for the Rasta infused ball-gown. The bar was set to Olympic heights and Grace absolutely did not disappoint.

How do you describe legs long enough to walk over the Great Wall of China, topped with a bottom-less black leotard, above which the giraffe-like neck; her heavily mascara’d eyes masked by a sequined eye-mask above which came… what looked to all intents and purposes like a black feathered mushroom… worn upside down. Grace looked like she was off to Ascot… but not necessarily the Ascot that the anointed Queen attends.

The obligatory Pull Up To The Bumper, a good deal of buttock-wriggling for the happy-snappers in the front rows and another few choruses of One Love and that was it. But it wasn’t really – that was just the end of one night; the Thursday was capped off by the appearance of one of Island’s pillars; one of the four musical cornerstones. If its true (and why wouldn’t it be) to cite Bob Marley, U2 and Steve Winwood as keystones then the fourth has to be Cat Stevens.

To be honest I wasn’t sure what to expect… I suppose I imagined him to sit there, strum his guitar, look at his feet and sing his songs. Dunno why I imagined that sort of performance given his pedigree but, maybe because of the whole embracing of Islam and the long-past ending of his having anything to do with his alter-ego, Cat Stevens.

How utterly wrong one can be.

From the moment he walked on stage he exuded presence by the bucket load. His band were nothing less than masterful, sporting one of the best keyboard players I’ve ever come across and, alongside long-time collaborator Allun Davies, Eric Appapoulay on slide guitar, first encountered when he played guitar in a former client of mine’s band… and boy, can he play.

The sound was exquisite; the arrangements were to die for and the voice… oh my Lord, that voice. Yeah, ok… and the songs aren’t half bad either.

It wasn’t one of those greatest hits nights – much as probably most of the hall wished for; there was a very fair smattering of old material in amongst the newer stuff but, above all the one thing that stood out was the in-between songs chat. This was clearly a man at ease with himself, at ease in his surroundings and very, very much at ease with his quite extraordinary body of work.

Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam – call him how you will. Try also – funny bloke with a great line in self-deprecating humour.

Midway through the set, Cat / Yusuf announces that his two young grandchildren are in the audience. He stands there, staring out into the darkness and eventually sees where they are on the balcony. He does the ‘hello, grandchildren’ bit and blows them an amplified kiss. All really rather sweet. Moments later, as he’s picking out the start of the next tune – appropriately his stone-ground classic, Where Do The Children Play – a piercing two-year old voice cuts through the acoustic strum… Grandpa… Grandpa… I can see you…

A rare privilege to have been there.

Friday morning and its back into work-mode… yet its hardly as if I’ve been out of that modus-operandi for goodness knows how long. The Steel Pulse night had elicited one further piece of good ABM fortune; as their set ended, Mark Ellen and I started to walk up the aisle toward the bar but were stopped by a hazily remembered face.

Not for the first time in recent weeks, a vaguely familiar face has suggested that they know me. And, this time around, Mark as well. We introduce ourselves and he does the same… we all do know one another; its Mykaell Riley one of the co-founders of Steel Pulse. Mark starts talking about an NME cover story that he conducted for the band way back when but, its unclear if Mykaell has perfect recall of that event.

More recently, however, and for quite a while now, Mykaell has been one of the leading lecturers to students on popular music studies. Indeed, he’s someone I’ve been trying to track down for the last few months yet, for whatever reasons, have met brick wall after dead end. Now we’re standing face to face. As Mark heads toward the bar, Mykaell and I swop contact details and I pass on a few choice tidbits about ABM.

Friday early morning and the e-mail pops up… he’s had a good look through everything to do with ABM and… when can we meet, this is right up my alley. An hour later and yet another incoming ‘phone call from a publisher I’ve been wanting to hook up with concerning these songs that are burning a hole in my pocket. Appointments are made in amongst the many others already in the diary and...

Next week looks like being really rather busy.


Fifi Dessein said...

Soul soaring music, dynamic energy, unexpurgated talent and a firm pair of 61-year-old buttocks.

Yep, that sounds like Island.

Anonymous said...

An interesting overview, especially given how the Island 50 people have written it up on their web-site. In fact, I'd go so far as to say, this is the much more 'interesting' review of events to read. It certainly gives a better flavor of actually being there and is considerably less sycophantic.

I've seen Steel Pulse a few times over the past years, and yes David Hind's dreadlocks are something to behold! The little sideline into your friend Tony's times taking them about to radio interviews, very funny indeed. Personally, I too prefer the older material.

I can only imagine what it must have been like to see Cat Stevens - what a treat (or as you said, a privilege).

Oh to have been there.