Misty In Roots @ Rock Against Racism, Hackney Empire
Itís been almost ten years to the day since I last saw Misty In Roots play live. Back then it seemed age had finally begun to mellow them, cracking a smile across their somber countenance, to the point where they even played some jaunty ska numbers on stage. Ever since Iíve kept an eye on them from a distance, certain that the militancy that saw them playing tiny pubs and rebuking the audience for getting drunk during their sets had well and truly passed.
But as some of the premier Jamaican live acts like Burning Spear and Max Romeo have shown us, a groupís twilight years can often mean a rebirth and a regaining of past form. The release of Mistyís last album Roots Controller, containing re-workings of old classics from their Peel Sessions, and newer tracks conceived in the same spirit, hinted at a return to the solemn eschatology of their roots. And with this appearance at a gathering of the old guard Left in hoary old Hackney Empire marking an interesting symmetry in their career, 28 years on from their seminal recorded appearance at The Counter Eurovision, the time seemed right to check them again.
These are trying times for the fight against fascism, and the rank and file Left in general, marginalised by a society where many believe both racism and ideology are things of the past. But what the crowd still in attendance at the tail end of the evening lack in numbers, they make up for in their earnest, and from the cheers that go up when Misty In Roots take to the stage, youíd have thought they were three times as many present.
They open strongly, fusing two of their greatest Peel Session recordings True Rasta Man and Judgement On The Land, and straight away it becomes clear Iím witnessing something very special indeed. The arrangements are perfect, the harmonies nothing short of sublime, and the interplay between the two guitars, so often in live reggae a disaster of cacophonous and indulgent soloing, is crisp and restrained. Not a single note is wasted by anyone during the entire performance.
We get a full brass section and their playing is so tight you could be listening to a studio recording, while the keyboardist sticks to whirling organ settings and remains low in the mix. The only let down is the whine of persistent feedback as the sound engineers struggle with so many miked instruments on stage, but singer Watford Tyson, in a true display of single-minded professionalism, ignores the imperfections without comment, ensuring the flow is never lost.
They play none of their softer more reflective mid period material; only tracks from their Roots Controller album and old Counter Eurovision favourites such as See Dem A Come and Down In the Ghetto Of the City, tapping into their key Jamaican influences: The Twinkle Brothers and Devon Irons. Young mohawks bob at the front, still following Johnny Rottenís instruction that itís ďpunkĒ to like reggae, while veteran activists sway at the back or recline in the theatre style seats. With a few more punters this could be 1979. The band leaves the stage after just under an hour and does not return, but only the most churlish of customers could suggest Southallís finest gave less than our moneyís worth. On the strength of this show, they are quite simply the strongest live reggae act in the UK.
Unlike the recent wave of nostalgia based groups on the British scene, the new and improved Misty In Roots are not recycling the past; they are playing the music they were born to play, marrying modern techniques and equipment with their original passion. The day of reckoning they await has yet to arrive, but the time to catch Misty In Roots at the height of their powers is here.
Review by Angus Taylor