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Concert reviews

Acoustic Reggae Songbook, Meltdown Festival*, South Bank, London - 15th June 2008

(*Featuring Earl 16, Prince Malachi, Michael Prophet, Johnny Clarke & Horace Andy)

The Meltdown Festival has been running for 15 years, and offers a guest director the opportunity to curate their own personal festival, with previous directors including such diverse talents as Patti Smith, Lee Perry and David Bowie. This year it is the turn of Massive Attack, and they have 9 days to fill with concerts, talks, films and other artistic projects. Tonight was billed as an Acoustic Reggae Songbook, and featured a stunning line-up of roots reggae artists, accompanied by a small but highly accomplished acoustic band. The decision to feature the artists in an 'unplugged' format was a stroke of genius, providing a very different but completely mesmerising performance from each artist.

MC for the night was Don Letts, and his first task was to introduce the band – Adrian McKenzie on Grand Piano, Kyle Brown on Acoustic Guitar, Phillip Harper on Percussion and Henry ‘Buttons’ Tenyue on Trombone/Backing Vocals. First up was Earl 16, whose set included a varied mix including a couple of Bob Marley tunes, the traditional Satta Massagana and a soulful version of Simply Red’s Holding Back The Years. He was followed closely by Prince Malachi, and a theme was already beginning to develop, covering as he did a couple of Bob Marley tunes and a soulful version of Dennis Brown’s Should I. Comparisons have been drawn in the past between him and Luciano, and both are excellent singers, but Malachi is clearly his own man who has developed his own style. To round off the first half it was the turn of Michael Prophet, who added a new dimension with his humour and distinctly unique voice. Michael was very strong vocally, there was also one cover of a Marley song here, but a splendid set also included a couple of tunes from the Yabby You stable.

It was time for a short interval before the two Jamaican roots heavyweights Johnny Clarke and Horace Andy were due to appear. I spotted promoter Nicky Ezer, of Culture Promotions, and took the opportunity to thank her for putting on such a great show. This show was a class act in itself, and the positive vibe and apparent mutual respect of the artists shone through. The show resumed very quickly, catching a lot of bar-goers by surprise, with the band opening up with a rendition of Rastaman Chant. Then Johnny Clarke appeared resplendent all in white, and his voice as clear and melodic as ever. Another Marley cover (albeit Crazy Baldhead, which Clarke covered whilst Marley was still alive) was included, but one of my favourites was Blood Dunza. The unplugged nature of the show shone through again during his soulful version of Dennis Brown’s Going To The Ball.

Finally, Horace Andy took to the stage to sing his roots staples such as Money and Skylarking alongside his Massive Attack contributions, my highlight being a Nyahbinghi-style version of Hymn Of The Big Wheel. I’ve seen Horace many times over the years, and he has never failed to uplift me with his conscious lyrics and distinctive voice. The stripped-down, acoustic arrangements of his songs prompted Horace to say in a positive way that he didn’t know that some of his songs could sound like this.

A final treat saw all five stars reconvene on stage for a final, sing-along version of Marley’s One Love, to send an appreciative crowd off into the night. The ovation at the end showed that these guys are held in high esteem, and would grace any stage anywhere in the world. I felt very lucky to witness such a gathering, and hearing such familiar songs with such unusual arrangements made this one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever attended, an absolute triumph.

Review by Bob Schaffert

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