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Concert reviews

Boss Sounds Festival 2008

A beautiful crisp North Eastern Saturday is drawing to a close when Boss Sounds 2008 begins. The bringing of the festival forward to October is a mercy on effete Londoners and the vibe from the locals is as relaxed and friendly as before. The word is that advance ticket sales haven’t been as good as last time – although, since the line-up is designed to lure the casual music fan, more walk-ins are likely. Even so, there is plenty of activity outside the Carling Academy as doors open and the punters steadily trickle in.

The familiar record vendors are inside, as well as a Caribbean food stall, and some Sly & Robbie T Shirts are on sale. For some reason there are fewer performance timetables on display this time but the video screens with the acts names are back in action, flashing scenes from movies including Babylon and The Harder They Come.

Christopher Ellis
Christopher Ellis. © CJ Holley

In the upstairs room – previously for djs - UK digi roots cooperative Alpha & Omega are playing. Their style isn’t massive on subtlety or variation, which suggests the bigger PA in the downstairs hall might have done them greater justice, yet they draw the entire crowd with their new agey dub grooves. Their melodica player, looking like a shaven headed version of the Happy Mondays’ Bez, entertains between blasts on his toy by dancing in a contorted fashion and waving a lighter. The UK’s largest reggae event has begun.

The first act in the hall, YesKing, exemplify what promoter Adam Collerton means by “broadening the appeal of the festival this year”. They play the sort of hip hop, soul and Jamaican mashup one might expect from an outfit formed by the founder of Manchester’s crucial Fat City record shop - with live horns, a male and female rapper, plus indeterminate electronic wizardry from producers Mark & Rhys. The straight hip hop tunes don’t go down so well, due to the lack of definition that dogs the sound at Carling venues rather than any purism on the part of the spectators, as male voice, bass and beats are lost in a muddy soup. The dancehall inflected numbers, however, showcasing the higher frequencies of their lady mc, get the place going, as do experimental rhythmed pieces such as the three-four time urban waltz One Of Those Days. Sure it’s different, but an act that challenges audience expectations can make the ones they’ve been waiting for hit all the sweeter. Especially if it’s the belated addition to the ranks who’s next to take the mic….

Drafted in two days before to pay tribute to his father Alton, Christopher Ellis gives us the most perfectly formed 15 minutes of the evening. Anyone who has seen this young man sing will know he sounds uncannily like his dad and with emotions running high over the great man’s departure this is one of the key moments of the weekend. He has only the time to pick a few choice delights from Alton’s gargantuan back catalogue such as I’m Still In Love and Rocksteady. Nevertheless, it’s a life affirming celebration of a true legend. Chris also proves an affable character afterwards, talking freely and even granting on the spot interviews with local media. Huge respect is due to the organisers for this late-stage coup, which tips the balance of the bill toward the music’s tradition on the Saturday, leaving the eclecticism for the Sunday to come.

Given what we’ve just witnessed you’d think George Dekker and Jackie Robinson of The Pioneers would be feeling the pressure as they walk on. If they do they certainly don’t show it. Their sweet harmonies are a fitting follow up to Ellis, keeping his work in mind while taking us straight to the next level. Their golden voices blend above an incredibly strong performance from the backing band, peaking with Papa Was A Rolling Stone, Reggae Fever (introduced as a “fool fool song”) and of course, Longshot Kick The Bucket. When people tell you reggae lifts them to higher heights, this is what they mean.

Jerry Dammers
Jerry Dammers. © CJ Holley

After the best dj set of the night from guest compere Jerry Dammers - slipping the classics (“Blackbird”) between the crowd pleasers (“I Chase The Devil”) - Sly & Robbie return us to the dub styles that started things off. At first it feels overly cerebral and nerdy, cold and calculating, all stripped down versions and flashy drumming. But gradually it becomes more and more clear that our perceptions are simply being challenged after the gorgeous melodies of the previous two acts. Midway through, Peter Gayle, their singer, comes in with some Black Uhuru vocals, Plastic Smile and Shine Eye Girl, followed by a rendition of the mighty Drifter and their conceit is unveiled. They have been teaching us patiently how reggae is built from the bottom up, turning the convention of the vinyl seven inch on its head, with the A side following the B.

At 10.30 sharp everyone is kicked out as the Academy has a club night to run. The first half of Boss Sounds is done, the hardcore fans are sated, and with the exception of Cherine Anderson’s cancellation at the eleventh hour, there have been no disappointments at all.

Sly and Robbie
Sly and Robbie. © CJ Holley

Day two of Boss Sounds is a little overcast and the streets of Newcastle are less bustling than 24 hours ago. But with a far more varied range of artists performing – some of whom stretch the perimeters of Jamaican music til they break – there is a palpable sense of anticipation about today’s show.

There’s also a palpable sense of trepidation, as Leeds sound Iration Steppaz have brought their own vaunted and monstrous rig to the upstairs room. Shortly after they begin their 6 hour set, they are told categorically to turn it down as the entire building is shaking and may fall apart.

At this point, Ed Rome and The Connectors are christening downstairs. Ed’s signed to Pama International’s Rockers Revolt and is a bearded gentle giant with a “red wedge” accent and a nice line in quintessentially English songs and easygoing ska and early reggae rhythms. He introduces them with a genial self-deprecating air and seems un-fussed that the place isn’t that full. Although probably new to many of the punters here, he’s played enough instruments with enough groups in enough styles to know exactly how the business works.

Next up is self-explanatory fusion collective Ska Cubano, the acceptable face of innovation for the cognoscenti. That said, the Geordies don’t seem to be acquainted with their big tune Tequila, shouting “rum!” “raki!” and, most amusingly, “Carling!” when sometime Top Cat and co-front man Natty Bo asks for their favourite drink (it still has everyone dancing nonetheless). Every Cubano member is something of a genius at their chosen vocation and the lengths to which they go to entertain are quite extraordinary to behold. Aurally (and visually) stunning saxophonist Megumi Mesaku blows her horn behind her back, and there is a breath-taking flute solo during Mambo Ska. Bo himself, quietly charming in the Salsa Bar before the festival, is now a roaring typhoon on stage, calling out the many ingredients in their sound “mento, ska, rocksteady, reggae” “mambo, rhumba, bolero and son”. To end, Jerry Dammers leads the throng in singing Happy Birthday to trumpeter Tan Tan and they oblige. Whether this ethno musicological project floats your boat or not, the levels of musicianship and showmanship can’t fail to impress.

Ska Cubano
Ska Cubano. © CJ Holley

In the foyer some kids are chatting excitedly about Natty (“he’s fresh”, “he’s indie meets reggae” “he mixes every genre you can think of”) and despite neither room being as full as yesterday, the crowd is younger and a little more studenty – which is what the promoters were wanting. Natty and co are extremely tight and nigh on note perfect having honed their craft all summer. If you’re a fan of what he does, he’s worth catching live.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Iration are hitting their stride. Their aggressively techno-influenced platters could scare a Panamanian dictator out of his palace, but here they play it safe with back-to-back Johnny Clarke, letting their sound system’s power do the talking. Underrated turn of the millennium material such as Errol Bellot’s Roots Gone International and Chronicle’s Row Fisherman prove Marc Iration is a top selector, and whilst an appraisal of his skills in the long term is best left to those in possession of earplugs and a padded cranium, short stays are cleansing and remove any prior stresses from the night.

There is a mini exodus post-Natty (surprisingly, considering his exposure in the press, he only had the hall half filled). Now it’s time for Symarip, or rather one of the two outfits currently using the name, with members Roy Ellis and Monty Neysmith (Symarip mark II is Frank Pitter and Michael Thomas). Their band, featuring the aforementioned Ms Mesaku on sax, plays with confidence, and by the closing stages of their spot they have drawn in the numbers. Along with their ska and skinhead hits, they drop a tune from their new album called See Them A Come, and salute yesterday’s heroes and current tour mates, Chris Ellis and The Pioneers, with their takes on Rocksteady and Longshot Kick The Bucket.

Like Natty, the Easy Star Allstars are impressively well rehearsed. Their technically adept covers of Pink Floyd and Radiohead may feature chords you don’t find in Jamaican songs (though the ending of Karma Police works brilliantly with an afterbeat skank) but their effortless stage generalship and polish give Ska Cubano and Natty a run for their money in the making-it-look-simple stakes. At their worst, they can plumb the same college psy jazz noodling depths as Grounation, making roots to get drunk to while discussing Plato. But as the arrival of headliners Misty In Roots impends, they increasingly cleave to conservatism and restraint. They pull the Sunday’s biggest crowd, many of whom boo and then leave when Dammers wisely refuses an encore for time purposes. The question is, if the Allstars can play the albums of others so well, what would they be like proffering material of their own?

Easy Star All-stars
Easy Star All-stars. © CJ Holley

Trojan Sound’s Earl Gateshead drops a selection that includes Randy’s Allstars Batman and The Wailers cut of the Archies Sugar Sugar (In a world of cooler-than-thou obscurantism he is unafraid of playing to the gallery and has an instinctive ear for what will work a room) and at long last, Misty are here to see us out.

They start with their 2002 merger of vintage favourites True Rastaman and Judgement On The Land and, regardless of the absence of its iconic Hammond lines and a trombonist, the diehards who have stayed for the climax go wild. Overall their set is more feminine than usual, opting for major key numbers Dancehall Babylon (which gets the bright young things in the audience moving to a critique of their lifestyle), On The Road, and the ever affecting Almighty (The Way). The blazing horns and reprimand starts up again with John Barry-inspired, institutional racism rebuke Cover Up, and then, just as they announce Ghetto Of The City, we are told by Culture Promotions’ Nicky Ezer that the gig must end. This is the night’s only real mishap, and feels jarring and disappointing, particularly after last year’s flawless clockwatching. It should be noted, however, that such overruns are par for the course with almost every other reggae promotion, so it would be wrong to judge the Boss Sounds team by their own high standards.

The diversity of talent at Boss Sounds 2008 was never going to please all the people all the time. But in a year when Glastonbury invited Jay Z to headline and were lauded by the media for their bravery, we shouldn’t knock Boss Sounds for wanting to try something different; especially when the pleasant atmosphere, exemplary organisation, and value for money ticket price made the weekend another resounding success. Having given us the old masters in 2007 and taken a gamble in 2008, hopefully the festival will return with some contemporary Jamaican marquee names for 2009. Whatever they do, put it in your diary, for Boss Sounds, once an oddity on the scene, is now, like Glastonbury, an institution.

Review by Angus Taylor

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