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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Can't get enough...of that Brockwell Park reggae stuff

Max Romeo and the Charmax band on stage at Brockwell Park, SOuth London, 21 July 2013
"Lucifer! Son of the morning, I'm gonna chase you out of eart!" 
Thank God for south London, for Lambeth, Brixton, and Brockwell Park. Thank Jamaica for the music that burned with a soul-healing heat on the second day of the Lambeth Country Show.

I would never have expected this - but these two days of music amount to the best I'ver experienced, the most joyous, since the early 1980s. Was it my age, was it the sunshine, the beautiful crowd?

Was it the great attitude of nearly all the performers, who seemed determined to give their very best to this free event, when they could so easily have cranked out the old numbers by numbers and gone  home for a shower ?

Something about Brockwell Park this weekend caused both young and veteran musicians to really extend themselves, to give their best, or so it seemed.

Arriving in the park around 2.45 this afternoon, there was the powerful magnetic tug of high-precision reggae rhthyms which surged up the hill and seemed to fill the entire Brockwell/Herne Hill valley like a lake of sound. As people approached, they walked faster and more and more in time with the rhythms, all the more eager to reach this already packed natural arena.

At first I thought it must be a record, then saw the main stage down the hill with a band on it, a tiny figure with a distinctly Marleyan look about him  singing songs of justice and struggle and so on ....I get closer, the little guy is really singing from his heart, he has an acoustic guitar but also a brilliantly sharp band who give just enough bass and drum to raise the thing, to raise the crowd.

I realise it's this  new star, name of Natty,  with his band the Rebelship. His songs are sharp and full of the righteous anger that marked the best of this music from the early 1970s - righteous anger, youthful idealism, that plaintive voice, again with a little of Marley's grain in it, but fast, the rap inflections just adding bite. Apparently he's born in the USA yet he sounds like a Jamaican Londoner. Check out his music, there's loads of great stuff on YouTube etc.

He's well loved and realises it and is all smiles after a while. He goes down a storm, and he's generous too, bigging up the old guys who will follow him as he leaves the stage.

It's a great taste of what's to come, this fresh  take on old old roots, fresh and new minted, yet with echoes of deep roots decades and the centuries of suffering that preceded them.

On comes a local mixed-race reggae band, The Soothsayers, they are good but are they good enough for this place? Natty's a very hard one to follow, but this band has a trump card to play - they bring on the veteran singer, Cornel Campbell, and things suddenly catch fire. There's a whole segment of the audience - chiefly, I'd say early-middle-aged Brixton mums, who seem to know every word of his back catalogue.

Each time he starts a song, he gets about four bars in and then  cries , "pull  it back", and it grinds to a halt. Then he starts again to a new surge of cheers. Is this him telling the band they're getting things a bit wrong or what? No-one seems to mind, and there's just so much good feeling around, and some to spare - it surely need to be bottled for future use.

This Cornel, in his dark suit and shades, his 1978-look dreadlocks, still jet black, he sings high and clear like a young man, his moves are supple, and yet he must be not too far off 70 maybe? Or at least mid-60s.

The sun is getting hotter, the crowd is still building, and Brockwell Park is beginning to look like a raggae sunsplash site from back in the 80s. What helps is the clarity of the sound in this still, warm air - it'sa very good sound system.

The next act up is the "special guest" Mikey General, backed by the Charmax band. He bounces onto stage in a big fawn corduroy suit and black shirt and big black dreads and you think, "hang on, what?"....but he's already many steps ahead and delivers a blistering short set, enjoying every second of it and working the crowd with great expertise.

You begin to wonder if poor old Max Romeo, the headliner, is going to be able to carry this crowd, so expertly built up by each  act, and even the failings of the sound system (a couple of records seem to have had a few too many plays) are happily tolerated .

And then, here he is, in a mustard yellow, loose-fitting ensemble,  dreadlocks now ash-grey but still full and extending down to knee-level, and god he is moving so well, and his voice is still  fluid as he rushes in with War in a Babylon.

The man has real mastery of this crowd, he has a powerful dignity about him, a deep presence, and he seems to have no doubt how much we love him. He expects us to know the lyrics of each song even before he's two bars in, and amazing;ly, a substantial  proportion of the audience does know them, but not well enough perhaps...

( "I'm gonna put on a iron shirt, and chase the devil out of earth....Brixton, you cannot be serious, I cannot hear you. Again: "I'm gonna put on an iron shirt, and kick satan out of the eart....send him to outa space, to find another race....!)

Near the end  he gives his little speeech on the problerm of poverty - where's the serum, to eradicate it? - and then he slink offstage, and then he's come back, and does a blistering, initially unaccompanied Redemption Song. Tears well up above impossibly wide smiles. Bliss, emotions cranked right up past maximum.

Astounding. Two short afternoons of beautiful music in beautiful weather in a beautiful location, and I am ready to fly the flag for Brixton,  for South London, for reggae music, and - OK this is a joke, Lambeth Council -  and everything that goes with it, just like it's still  1981.

And as for LoveBox, etc, Victoria Park and Hyde Park and what have you? North of river?


One love!

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