It is 7.45pm and we are ready for reggae royalty. The crowd is a mixture of young and old, some already dancing to the dub coming out of the speakers.
The band come out first. The drummer, rhythm guitarist and bass player look old enough to be everybody’s grandfathers.
It starts with two songs from Leba, who is Toots’ daughter. She sounds like Gladys Knight except she has reggae in her bones. She does two songs about peace and love before she is gone to join the other two female backing vocalists.
Now it was time for the main event. The dreadlocked guitarist stepped up to the mic to make the introduction, filling in the gaps in knowledge for those too young not to know the history of the vocal legend about to come to the stage. “The term reggae music comes from one of his songs, he is a Grammy winner, he’s probably had more number ones than any other Jamaican artist.”
Toots walks out. He moves slow. The cheers go up. He is wearing white shoes, a shiny leather sleeveless jumpsuit with a bandana and a small gold cross. He waves, the cheers go up again. He puts on his shades. The cheers get louder. I have never been to a gig where somebody gets a such a reception for just putting their sunglasses on. Maybe the crowd know it’s a signal that things are going to get serious, serious fantastic music.
And then he sings.
‘Pressure drop.’ The voice – undiminished by age. It sounds exactly the same as on the old Ska records from the 1960s, exactly the same as when I saw him in 1985. Powerful, loud, deep and rasping. So powerful that he hardly ever brings the microphone directly to his mouth, he holds it somewhere near his belly button.
The band is super super tight. Reggae at its heart is simple music. It is all about the feel. a change in milliseconds in the interaction between the musicians can make the difference between a rhythm sounding flat or god-like genius. The band know what they are doing. They are James Brown type tight and expertly choreographed. They speed up and slow down to his whims.
When listening to the music, I hear touches of early Bob Marley and the Wailers, I hear the essence of the 2 Tone bands in the tunes ‘Funky Kingston’, ‘Last train to Skaville’, ‘Louie Louie’
The crowd know all the words to ‘Monkey Man’ (which had been covered by The Specials at their peak).
I have to mention Toots dancing. One fan came up to me and insisted I write about it – so here it goes. He can’t dance, not in the conventional sense. He shuffles, he flicks his arms out. He has moves that James Brown and Michael Jackson would reject wholeheartedly. One time he looked like he was trying to do hopscotch combined with the robot. Its endearing, its entertaining, it fits in with what he does. Playing life-affirming music.
He and the band left the stage after Monkey Man and the crowd kept on singing it for five minutes then the band returned and carried on with the song.
Then finally, they play his most famous song. ’54-46 What’s my number’. We all join in.
“Give it to me one time. Give it to me two times. Give it to me three times.”
It ends with a smile, a wave. He fist bumps the entire band then he is gone, promising to return next year.
Photographer – Kev Howard
Midge Ure? If you’re a pub quiz aficionado or never read the sleeve notes of records or cds then he will probably only pop into your head if I asked you ‘What chart position did Vienna get to in the charts?’ Number 2. Held off the top spot by Joe Dolce. I’m not even going to award any points for that answer. ‘Vienna’ by Ultravox: what a voice, what a video – need I say more? Midge Ure was front and centre of that 1980s classic but his influence, song writing skills and high class musicianship can be seen in so many places if you care to look. ‘Fade to Grey’ by Visage – another seminal piece of 1980s New Romantic music. That was our good friend Midge again.
So, you’re not into all that New Romantic stuff? Like your music a bit harder. Thin Lizzy perhaps? Who stepped into fill the vacant slot on their US tour when lead guitarist Gary Moore (yes him) left the band mid tour. None other than Midge again. You got to be pretty good to fill Gary Moore’s boots.
What about if synths and heavy guitars are not your thing? You like your music a bit more folky? Get your hands on U-Vox. It’s got the Chieftains on it. What? Ultravox and the Chieftains. Have I just blown your mind with that? Okay that’s all too much to take in.
Relax. Sit down, put your feet up, watch some TV, maybe watch an old episode of ‘Top of the Pops’. Midge Ure pops up again on the theme tune. Yellow Pearl 1981 to 1986.
Then there’s his solo career. ‘No regrets’ and ‘If I was’ were both big hits.
I have mentioned a lot of his older music, the thing is, it still stands up to close scrutiny today. ‘All Stood Still’ could be played in any German Techno club and it would go down a storm.
I suppose you want me to talk about Band Aid? – ‘Do they know its Christmas’ is a great song (which he co-wrote). Imagine how far they would have got if the song wasn’t up to standard? We’ve all heard charity songs that are rubbish.
Midge Ure is playing at Gala Theatre, Durham on November 5th. He’ll be playing songs from his entire back catalogue. It will be fantastic. I’m not a betting man but I’d put money on him performing Vienna.
Afro Celt Sound System -Riverside Newcastle -2-11-16
Founding member, Simon Emmerson claims he is an old punk. I do not believe him. Afro Celt Sound system are a tight, slick, professional well-oiled machine with an expensive light show, which looks too grand for the Newcastle Riverside, a venue perfect for creating an intimate atmosphere. Its like a really big living room with a balcony on one side where everybody can get a good view of the stage. They are out on tour to promote their new LP ‘The Source’.
For the uninitiated, The Afro Celt Sound System are exactly what you’d think they are from their name alone: musicians playing a blend of African music, Celtic music and Reggae Dub music. It’s a crazy idea that Simon had 20 years ago and it works wonderfully.
There is a vast array of world instruments on the stage; Kora, Guitar, Violin, Tabla, Talking drums, Keys and drum kit as well as 2 female vocalists.
They kick off with a laid back bluesy number sung by Rioghnach Connolly with the lyric “Keep hold of your children.”
The musicianship is of the highest order. There are plenty of synthetic sounds and heavy bass tones but they do not dominate. Its all about the players and the traditional instrumentation. Then out of the right hand side of the stage a guy with a flat cap pops up and plays a frenetic bagpipe solo. It fits, it’s brilliant. I was thinking that’s a nice little one off gimmick. I was wrong. The bagpipes return frequently and it works every time. The thing you have to understand, is that everybody playing in the band is the real deal. Griogair (a.k.a G-Croft) is not just a bagpipe player, he speaks and raps in Scottish Gallic, he plays guitar and flute. That is the beauty of Afro Celt Sound System, each performer could stand tall doing their own thing and you would pay money to see them but when they perform together it takes the listener somewhere else. You can feel the harmony, you can feel the joy.
Part of the way through the first half, N’Faly Kouyaté, the kora player dressed in an orange African outfit explains what a kora is. Its a 21 stringed harp from west Africa. “Kora players are like a live library of story telling,” he says. There is a smoothness, lyrical quality to his playing, then of course, there is his majestic voice. He has sweet high notes. He sounds like he was born to do this.
In the second half, Jimmy Kalsi came out front with his glasses perched on top of his turban and his large Dhol drum strapped around him which he plays with a stick in each hand.
G-Croft has the modern swagger, N’Faly Kouyaté has the voice, but Kalsi has the stage patter honed from playing big festivals “move like this, wave your hands in the air, move on the off beat.” He has the instructions. Everybody is loving it.
The second half is the equivalent of turning the amps up to 11. Simon tells the crowd “We’re going to take you to the edge then push you off.”
Everybody in the band gets ample time to showcase their skills on songs like ‘Higher love’, ‘Desert billy’ and ‘Kalsi breakbeat’.
N’Faly Kouyaté’s kora riffs are more like complex polyrhythmic guitar playing.
The talking drum solo is the best one I’ve heard (I’ve heard more talking drum solos than you think.)
Afro Celt Sound System are type of band which you could see every night of the tour because every night would be different even if the set list stayed the same because they are such great improvisers.
Before the encore N’Faly Kouyaté tells the audience about his charity bringing water to his home village and surrounding area. Money from the merchandise goes towards this.
The band lock arms and bow at the end. Simon Emmerson has loved every minute of it “I love gigs like this,” he proudly proclaims “I’m an old punk at heart. We’ve done all the posh gigs, formal ones with people sitting down. We will always do gigs like this.”
Afro Celt Sound system: Raw, authentic, uncompromising, they mess with your head if you didn’t know what to expect (Bagpipe solos!!!) Maybe he is a punk at heart after all.
Photographer – Kev Howard
Midge Ure – Gala Theatre Durham -5-11-16
The first act on is India Electric co. Cole Stacey and Joseph O’Keefe are from Devon and have a brand of folk all of their own. The guitar melodies interlock with the violin and manage to convey a gamut of emotions – from soothing to danger. They do blues tinged tunes reminiscent of Tom Waits but with a voice that hasn’t suffered form acute bar-room excess. Singing songs about missing out on lost love but sounding young and fresh enough to go back for a second chance before its too late. The violin player is a virtuoso who reminds me of Stephane Grappelli. ‘Lost in Translation’ and ‘My Friends Are Rich’ should be hits.
After a brief break, its time for the main act.
Midge Ure is on tour and he’s come to Durham, ready to entertain with a greatest hits show with a difference. It’s stripped back. Midge on acoustic guitar flanked by India Electric Co. on mandolin and violin. The violin player on the right occasionally gets on the keyboards for some of the Ultravox numbers.
The sound at the Gala theatre is excellent. We can hear every note he sings and every note played. His voice is on top form. Midge is in a relaxed mood. He’s doing “something from everything”, covering from 1978 onwards. He’s been working out the format and set list as he’s been going along, now he reckons he’s nailed it. Reinterpretations of songs from 14 albums in one a half hours? No problem.
In between each song he chats with the audience, cracking jokes: commiserating that some are missing Strictly Come Dancing on tv, how heavy the rain is and that listening to the new stuff is “the price you’ve got to pay for listening to the old”. The newer stuff is just as good though such as ‘Starcrossed’, from one of his more recent solo albums, which he sings effortlessly. He leans back, turning his head to the right for the loudest notes, all with his unmissable Scottish accent. He is the one of the most distinctive singers of vowels in the business.
He teases us with a riff from Slick (one of his early bands) then a one from Thin Lizzy before telling us he’s not doing them tonight. He mentions that he only discovered that the violin player could play the piano half way through last year’s tour. “That would’ve been useful to know” he says with a smile.
He keeps knocking out the hits with his powerful voice. People don’t need asking twice to clap or sing along. Its an all-seater venue but people are getting up and dancing at the front.
“Back in 2010, hell really did freeze over and I got back together with Ultravox. It was great fun. We toured, we recorded an album.” He performs ‘One’ from the ‘Brilliant’ LP.
“I’ve noticed you like it loud in Durham.” A cheer goes up from the crowd. ‘Man of 2 worlds’, ‘Lament’, ‘Reap the Wild Wind’.
Would he do any Visage tracks?
“Oh the damned don’t cry” he sings. There is no gap when he goes into ‘Vienna’ (we all do the “Oh Vienna” bit).
He asks for help singing ‘Fade to Grey’. Then he finishes with ‘Hymn.’
Throughout the gig, Midge has been interspersing the songs with anecdotes (like writing the lyrics for Lament and Reap the Wild Wind in the Scottish highlands with Ultravox’s bass player). His encore: He starts by saying he’s been in America recently and the rise of Donald Trump scares him so he thought he’d end with a song written about politicians. ‘All Fall Down.’
Midge singing and a knowledgeable crowd joining in. He’s been re-interpreting his back catalogue all night but with mandolin, acoustic guitar and violin, this one sounds as close to the recorded version (which featured the Chieftains) as we’re going to get. The perfect end to the set.
He was right. He nailed it. The crème of 14 albums in one night. Job done.
Most popular tune of the night? ‘Lament’. I could here people talking about it as they gathered round the stall to buy CDs and vinyl. Personally, I think ‘Reap the Wild Wind’ did it for me – I’ve still got the tune in my head, then there’s the old Visage song ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’ and then …. the list goes on and on.
Midge Ure: such a great catalogue of tunes. I want to see him again soon, in a bigger venue with more room to dance.
Photographer – Kev Howard
Crime Writer, Journalist, Professional Ass-Kicker, Boss of Good Voodoo Music Record Label, Band Leader of Tru Roots Project.