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Concert reviews

Boss Sounds Festival 2007 - 24th - 25th November 2007


With a small Caribbean community for its size, and a climate into which most Southerners- let alone Jamaican artists- would fear to venture, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne might seem an unusual place to hold the UK’s biggest reggae festival. But having experienced the Boss Sounds Festival for the first time, Reggae News can confirm its success comes from both the graft and determination of its organisers, and the willingness of the populace to embrace something new.

Now in its third year, Boss Sounds had some heavy coverage in the local media in the preceding weeks, and on the short walk from the station to the venue, almost every other person in the street was asking, “What’s on at the Academy tonight, like?”. On arrival at the door, many of them had opted to join the queue.

And it wasn’t just the locals who made up the numbers. Inside the venue, the vinyl sellers had their prices in both pounds and euro, indicating that many of our friends from the continent and Eire were making the journey over. A comprehensive list of start times was pinned to every wall, and for the benefit of latecomers, the performers names were projected onto screens while they played.

First on stage, fresh from his triumphant gigs in London, was Jamaican guitar hero Ernest Ranglin with the Mafia & Fluxy band. Opening with an almost identical set to his Jazz Café outing - including Ball Of Fire, King Tubby Meets The Rockers, Satta, Jericho Rock, Nana’s Chalk Pipe and Surfin’ - he impressed the crowd with his jazz chops, as well as some surf rock style flurries, and even a laid back variation on heavy rock, two- handed tapping JA style. Like its Brixton cousin, the Carling Academy is a bit of a cave whose sound threatened to undermine the intimacy of such a technically perfect performance, but in the end, the power of the music won out.

Ever dependable and evergreen, Max Romeo was next to play. His larger ensemble - two saxophonists and the mighty Black Steel on guitar and backing vocals - saw us in nicely with a medley of the hits to come. A great advertisement for healthy living, Max’s vocals today are if anything superior to his prime, with renditions of his Perry productions like One Step Forward, Uptown Babies and War Inna Babylon sung far more tunefully than on the original studio recordings. Other gems included the gospel- tinged Every Man Ought To Know, Three Blind Mice (ironic given the draconian, sanitised gig conditions of contemporary Britain) and Milk and Honey. The only mis-step was a pointless version of Redemption Song, where pints were held clumsily aloft and spilled on other people’s heads. I Chase The Devil closed the set to massive cheers.

Some singers have so many tunes in their back pocket that choosing what to rehearse with the band can be an arduous task. But when the singer in question is master showman John Holt, you know you’re in safe hands. Tonight, any screamed request he didn’t want to play in full got the acapella treatment, and once the cries of recognition started, he moved effortlessly on to the next. On more relaxed form than in London earlier in the year, and more comfortable with the band (fewer trademark cries of “cease!” when he wanted to break things down), he gave us crooning crowd pleasers like Morning Of My Life, If I Were A Carpenter, Sweetie Come Brush Me and Tide Is High, as well as less transient works such as psychedelic masterpiece Ali Baba, and rootical heavyweight Police In Helicopter. When you’ve spent as many years on stage thrilling the people as this man, everything looks easy.

John Holt
John Holt. © G. Robertson

Finally, Gregory Isaacs made his way into view. His voice may be reduced to a husk and his movements a little ungainly, but the Cool Ruler had both his incredible stage presence and the audience’s nostalgia firmly on his side. His set reached its highest heights with Rumours and Night Nurse and was a solid, if unspectacular end to day one. At Brixton in the summer, on their Reggae Icons tour, John Holt had closed the show and this would have been preferable, but Gregory is at least as big a star as John, and alternating top billing was only fair.


Boasting a larger roster of artists and, curiously, licensing for two additional hours over Saturday’s show, round two of this musical showdown promised to be the main event. For the Sunday the venue abandoned their ‘no re-entry’ policy and offered special wristbands to smokers and those who didn’t fancy eight and a half hours locked in doors. Security must have got quite an earful over the course of the previous night.

Dressed in a shiny silvery blue suit and flat-cap, the diminutive Dave Barker had the opening spot. He danced like a youngster to the rhythms of the Mafia & Fluxy band, reminding us of his impressive body of top tunes such as Monkey Spanner, Shocks Of Mighty and Set Me Free.

Next up was a double act: Dennis Alcapone and Winston Reedy. Dennis looked even more striking than Barker, in a red bowler and shirt with a white suit while the fresh faced former Cimarons singer did a pitch perfect impression of Eric Donaldson (on their rendition of Ripe Cherry) as this seemingly ageless pair took the crowd up another notch and the day got into full swing.

Opening with Crying Over You, Ken Boothe was on unusually talkative form throughout his set. He also found plenty of energy for some wildly flailing dance moves including his own version of the moonwalk at the end of Silver Words. Graciously, at the request of a fan before the show, he agreed to play the Tommy Cowan- produced Speak Softly Love, but during this and other harder edged material like When I Fall In Love and Is it Because I’m Black he kept the band at minimal volume and spoke at length about a number of topics including love songs, Martin Luther King and Apartheid. One of the few songs played straight was Artibella, where the band fused both his reggae and ska cuts into one workable whole. A country- inflected take on Sandy Shaw’s Puppet On A String demonstrated the close bond between the two styles, some new material was showcased acapella, and then the house was brought down with Everything I Own, inviting some truly terrible fog-horn singing from certain quarters of the audience.

Late replacement Horace Andy was on next (Eek-a-mouse had to pull out due to his familiar work visa trouble) and, as ever, he did not disappoint. He played a suitably bottom heavy Problems, before changing the lyric of Children of Israel to Children Of Rasta. Roots Of All Evil got an instant rewind, and was all chopping guitar and menacing horns, while a brief foray into lighter material included Dread A No Style and Natty Dread A Weh She Want. Then it was time for Every Tongue Shall Tell (introduced as always as his favourite Studio 1 song), Skylarking and then Cus Cus, over which he false-started by singing the lyrics for the previous song and collapsed into giggles. With co-organiser and DJ Daddy G standing proudly on stage, it was only fitting that he included a Massive Attack tune at the end. A man who has never played a duff set in his life, the Sleepy One deserved every clap of his rapturous applause.

Boss Sounds Crowd
Boss Sounds Crowd. © G. Robertson

As a beefed up brass section - two trombones, two sax - took to the stage, the Academy braced itself for the imminent arrival of Prince Buster. But first we had a warm up from Delroy Williams, a man who knows more than most about running a festival (he organised London’s first open air reggae event back in 1966). An occasionally abusive compere (shouting “Bullshit I can’t hear you” in the style of the drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket when the crowd didn’t shout loud enough, and then telling them to “shut up” when he wished to speak), he sang The Slickers’ Johnny Too Bad, and Desmond Dekker’s 007 before introducing the man of the hour.

Looking not a day over 40, Prince Buster walked on to a standing ovation. Starting with Al Capone he and the band motored through a strong selection of some of Jamaica’s greatest foundational music. A menacing Prince Of Peace, a joyously buoyant Shaking Up Orange Street, and the much loved Madness, Burke’s Law and Wash Wash were just a few of his unrelenting barrage of hits served to an ecstatic throng in perfect voice. Of all the veterans present tonight, his place in history is most secure, and yet he was perhaps the humblest, declaring at least three times, “I am just your musical servant” to his fans. The most anticipated performance of day two was also one of the strongest, and you can’t ask for fairer than that.

As for the other aspects of the festival, the level of organization at Boss Sounds 2007 could show most Southern promoters a thing or two, with every phase carefully orchestrated to run to the clock. Daddy G and Earl Gateshead played all the familiar classics in their DJ sets (the last was particularly strong) but local heroes Stalawatt Sound, who played the upstairs room with a more eclectic mix of tunes, were the real discovery of the weekend.

Two days of uplifting music, free of cynicism and complacency, from legendary singers and a tireless band that had to take the train home with the rest of us. Still wondering why the UK’s biggest Reggae Festival is held in Newcastle? Come along next year and find out.

Review by Angus Taylor

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