Luciano & Johnny Clarke at The Drum in Birmingham - 21st June 2008
This was our first visit to The Drum Arts Centre, although we had nearly made it to see Steel Pulse a couple of years ago. I was impressed with the layout, although a little taken aback at the level of security being employed at the door. Their policy is ‘no search-no entry’ which I suppose in these days is no bad thing. Once inside we found that there was a huge screen in the quieter of the two bars, showing what was happening on the stage, although it was unfortunate that the sound wasn’t being pushed through.
As things started to pick up, the support act Ossie Gad came onto the stage to sing over a few tracks. By the time Etana appeared to sing a few songs from her new album accompanied by the Jah Messenger Band, it was getting pretty warm in the main hall, and the MC apologised for the fact that the extractor fans were not working. Without air-conditioning the place was going to get pretty uncomfortable as the night went on.
Luciano hit the stage at about 1am, quite literally. His strength and agility was evident as he bounced and danced around the stage, all the more impressive in the oppressive heat. We were treated to a very strong show, including most of the man’s familiar hits, but the crowd also played a major part. At the start of How Can You, Luciano gave way to the audience as they sang the chorus at the top of their voices. The band was very polished, moving quickly from one song to the next, and it was obvious that the tour has been running for some months already. We were treated to a few tracks from his new album Jah Is My Navigator, the title track, No Evil and an excellent version of Bob Marley’s Jah Live. The inclusion of Johnny Clarke on the bill meant that something had to give and Luciano’s set, which has often run to around 90 minutes on this tour, was trimmed to just less than an hour. During this time we enjoyed classic tracks like Who Can It Be Now, The Messenjah and Ulterior Motive. We missed out on one of my personal favourites, This One Is For The Leaders, which was a real shame because there was clearly more to give but, as the big man said, “we’ve got to make it snappy”.
After Luciano’s set the MC announced a 15 minute break for the band to change over, but this ran to a good half hour. Thankfully this gave us the opportunity to seek out the slightly smaller bar to cool down a little. Johnny Clarke was accompanied by the Dub Asante Band, who always give a strong performance, and this was to be no exception. The man has changed in appearance over the years, looking very much the part of the Rastafarian elder, but his voice remains as sweet as ever it was. The swift band change had resulted in a less-than-perfect mix giving a slightly muddy sound, but the performance was fantastic nonetheless. Johnny Clarke has had so many hits in his career, with his tracks from the 1970’s standing as a particularly strong body of work, and we were treated to a good portion of these over the next hour, from None Shall Escape to Roots Natty Congo, Crazy Baldhead to African Roots, and Enter Into His Gates to King Of The Arena. The band occasionally slipped into some wicked dub licks, showing their real prowess in their live work, and there were also a few tracks thrown in that I hadn’t expected such as Rock With Me Baby and a version of The Paragons’ Left With A Broken Heart. In spite of the number of songs Johnny managed to squeeze in (I counted 15 I think), I was still left wanting more music at the end, but by 3.30am I was too hot to complain, and we drove off into the night happy to have enjoyed a wonderful night of roots reggae.
On balance, I think that Johnny Clarke won it for me on the night, but it was a close-run thing. I certainly look forward to when either of these guys is back in town – in the meantime, I intend to be back here at The Drum to see The Abyssinians and Dillinger in September.
Review by Bob Schaffert