Massive Roots Winter Splash
There is an unwritten rule which states that the best reggae shows in London are the worst attended. So it was with Massive Roots Winter Splash at the Hootenanny, formerly the insalubrious and unhinged Hobgoblin, where promoter Ras Lawi marshalled a phalanx of cultural talent and one of the toughest backing groups around.
According to the free London dailies, reggae is having “a renaissance” right now. But while sound systems in parks and the Hootenanny’s raft of ska gigs have packed in the punters, live roots music doesn’t seem to be enjoying the same trendy caché. When the music started, almost two hours behind schedule, there were only about 40 people in the main bar, sitting elegantly at their tables with the vibe of an ultra-refined private club.
Nobody seemed to have told the Gideon Force band, however. The Gideon Force – named after the elite Ethiopian soldiers who helped rout the Italian army - plays a wicked brand of roots whose key ingredient is the much missed sixteenth note Hammond organ shuffle. Their decision to open with Rockfort Rock may not have been unusual; the strength of their rendition certainly was. Errol Mattis put down his sax and took up the mic, leaving trombonist Buttons (of Matic Horns) to cover brass duties, as he sang in a ragged yet human tone. Lead guitarist Reny played a wild, West African sounding solo. Soon the women in the audience began to dance, less afraid of the space at the front of the venue than the men, and Touareg desert calls punctuated the smatterings of cricket-like applause.
Co-guitarist Jimi Lyons – not the famous jazz saxophonist - was next to take the spotlight. His set commenced with a hypnotic Sun Is Shining before easing into smoother lovers sounds including single All The Girls (during which he brazenly retuned his axe). These numbers (each with an obligatory roots breakdown at the end) suited his soulful fluid voice and were a nice point of contrast with the rest of the night.
The first singer to emerge from the wings was Nerious Joseph. Where Lyons paid homage to Bob Marley with Sun Is Shining, Nerious checked Bunny Wailer with a version of the great man’s guileless repatriation allegory Fig Tree, as the first whoops and cheers came back at the stage. Then it was time for some steppers - the minor chords of "Make a plan", and the more uplifting "No Peace" - as drummer Rim Bim’s opportune snare and militant cowbell shots put some mustard on the players’ collective work.
Emphasising the “Nanny” in “Hello Hootenanny”, the diminutive but formidable Empress Ayeola galvanised proceedings from the off. The men started to dance, the women surged forward as the Empress bounced on bare feet to an unrelenting major key march. During the interludes gun and knife crime, false dreads, and the disbelief in an international morality all incurred her displeasure. The Empress has a hard voice – a roots voice - yet there is such vitality in her tiny frame and infectiousness in her smile that every song and sermon remained positive to the core.
After a brief well-earned band break (to a solid off-the beaten-path roots vinyl selection by Zebby from Jah Yimasagan and Jah Sur Zema) Vivian Jones brought his venerable, scholarly presence to the stage. He began with the opening track from his latest solo album 50th, King Almighty (on the Skylarking rhythm), then dissolved it - to big up Norman Grant of The Twinkle Brothers who was present in the crowd – before coming again. (Incidentally, Prince Malachi and Barry Isaac were also in attendance for what was truly a night of “musicians’ music”). Jah See Them A Come and Legalise Ganja on another classic rhythm – Money The Roots Of All Evil – were delivered from the same eerie, head-half-turned, statue like stance. He left to faint applause; almost certainly the result of euphoria and awe rather than lack of impact. On returning for an encore he gave thanks to Delroy Wilson and Joe Higgs, Mortimo Planno and his grandparents, all of whom he dubbed his “ancestors who had crossed over”. Jones had been billed to close the evening, but, observing the delays, chose wisely to jump the queue and come on at his originally allotted time. This man is the seal of quality on any reggae show.
The Gideon Force bassist, Barry Dread, then sang a few verses but the venue was threatening to pull the plug at this point so the lanky bespectacled Danny Red was quickly ushered on. He showcased some of his lighter material before squeezing in a couple of tantalising bars of his haunting Manasseh and Mafia & Fluxy collaboration Be Grateful. Ironically, the person who suffered most from the curfew was Ras Lawi, who only got to sing one song – the rousing steppers chant Give Thanks & Praise - at his own festival. Iqulah was not able to perform as advertised as he was in Jamaica at the time.
As the concert met its end, Lawi saluted those who turned out, and the selector spun the Twinkle Brothers’ Jahoviah in honour of the event’s most esteemed celebrity guest. Yet – despite the bank of vocal expertise in the building - the real heroes of the night were the musicians, who proved a second obvious but often forgotten principle of live reggae: with the right band, everything falls into place.
Review by Angus Taylor