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Concert reviews

Soothsayers & Johnny Clarke at Jazz Cafe - 30th July 2009

Given their monstrous chops and cultish ability to convert almost anyone who sees them, it was inevitable that Soothsayers would stop playing for free. Their milestone first appearance at the Jazz Café with the “studio idler” Johnny Clarke wasn’t as full to bursting as some of their gratis ventures (across the river Prince Jammy was warming up for his Brixton Town Hall date which can’t have helped) but was typically, and impeccably, right on the money.

Committed musical polymaths, Soothsayers are on a mission to expand their fans’ sonic horizons. As promised in their recent interview with Reggae News, their pre-Clarke set eschewed the one drop: concentrating on jazz, funk and afrobeat material like Blinded Souls from second album Tangled Roots and Slow Down from the latest, One More Reason. Even so, there were a few choice reggae moments. The rippling Hold On gave a platform to guest singer Julia Biel, whose delicate, poignant, easy-on-the-vibrato singing style is a good match for album vocalist Mellow Baku. They also showcased a new tune, Hard Times, which had a judgmental feel close to Misty In Roots and some incredible four part harmonies from Julia, trumpeter Robin Hopcraft, saxophonist Idris Rahman, and bassist Kodjovi Kush. It seems, going forward, that the group aren’t done with Jamaican sounds just yet.

The brightly lit and compact venue allowed for a better view of what the band are doing. The rangy Robin Hopcraft is as loose and carefree on stage as off it, but the usually soft spoken Idris seemed transformed into a different person by performing, feeding off the audience and the music to a religious level. His sister Zoe’s keyboards were quite low in Manasseh’s brilliant mix of One More Reason. Here her jazz instincts were let off the leash. Underpinning all this was Pat Illingworth’s pugnacious drumming, Kush’s grounding bass and exuberant call and response vocals, and soundman Yuki’s golden ears behind the desk.

Their set’s finale was Music, their unstoppable homage to classic British roots. Never missing a trick, this became original template Peace And Love In The Ghetto, as Mr Clarke appeared, promising “we’ll sing a whole heap of tune because you are all important to I”.

After a less than inspired patch at the start of the decade the more vital looking Johnny is at the top of his game. Where his customary backing groups in the UK, like Mafia and Fluxy and Dub Asante tend to bring him into the digital age, Soothsayers come on like a hepper version of his 70s studio players the Aggrovators. Illingworth nailed the “flying cymbals” on None Shall Escape The Judgement, while Zoe gave it a Hammond garnish. King In The Arena was swiftly wheeled and came again. Declaration of Rights saw Clarke take the four part harmonies up to five.

Then it was time for their collaborative work from One More Reason. A bewitching Bad Boys let Zoe play the melodica, using the flex pipe rather than the Pablo short mouthpiece. Next came the ethereal backing vocals and insistent horn stab of the equally mesmerizing Your Love. A flurry of Clarke material followed including African Roots, Roots Natty, and Love Up Your Brothers And Sisters, where Illingworth again proved adept a recreating the rhythm’s cudgeling beat. Unlike his recent concert in Brockwell Park, Johnny (possibly under duress from the venue) chose not to end with crowd favourite Every Knee Shall Bow, opting for the more upbeat Move Out Of Babylon.

This all-conquering show (featuring a now consistently good value Clarke) demonstrated that Soothsayers are currently both one of the elite bands AND reggae backing bands in the country. The latter point may seem controversial for a specialist reggae site, but their playful African and jazz tinged sound is a lot closer to the spirit of the vintage singers they work with than the inflexible post-Shaka orthodoxy of UK dub.

Review by Angus Taylor

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