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Cornel Campbell in London

Cornel Campbell in London

Cornel Campbell in London

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Soothsayers and Cornel Campbell live at the Hootananny, Brixton, 26 July 2012.

The South-London based collective Soothsayers have been shaking up the stagnant local music scene during the last few years. With a heady and appealing blend of jazz, Afrobeat, and reggae, the band has carved a space for themselves in the crowded musical jungle that is London, and they have made a strong impression largely because the musicianship of their members is of such a high quality. With the passing of time, they just seem to get better and better, the appeal widening as they continue to forge a unique sound by harnessing the diverse elements at their command.

Cornell CampbellPairing Soothsayers with the top-ranking Jamaican roots crooner Cornel Campbell is certainly an inspired idea. The band has already backed reggae greats such as U Roy, Rico, Earl 16, Johnny Clarke and Michael Prophet, and have recorded with 16, Prophet, Mr Clarke, and Linval Thompson. Cornel is an open-minded guy, and the Soothsayers have an uncanny ability to draw out the best of veteran roots singers by aiming them into territories they might not otherwise have gone.

When I got to the venue, there was a real feeling of expectation in the air. The Olympic Torch had passed through Brixton that same morning, and under glorious sunshine, the whole of the neighbourhood had gathered in the hopes of glimpsing it, with steel bands and costumed dancers adding to the festive atmosphere. That same atmosphere was present at the venue, where crowds gathered in the large courtyard, eating jerk chicken, as supporting sound Jah Revelation Muzik played warmup. When the band took the stage, nearing midnight, they opened with a new-ish number that hit with dramatic impact: ‘Human Nature’ had strong three-part vocal harmony, with jazz-influenced singer Julia Biel blending nicely with the voices of founding members Robin Hopcraft and Idris Rahman, whose trumpet and sax interplay really livened the tune. Next came ‘Serious Time,’ which rode the augmented rhythm of Johnny Clarke’s classic ‘Peace and Love in the Ghetto’ to fine effect. It was made all the more enjoyable by a fine keyboard solo from Kishon Khan, leader of Lokki Terra, while drummer Patrick Illingworth and bassist Kodjovi Kush kept the tune grounded in the ‘flying cymbal’ mode, aided by the twin guitars of Phil Dawson and Patrick Hatchett. Another newer track, ‘Hard Times,’ was a slow skank with a heavy dubwise portion, then the emotive ‘We’re Not Leaving,’ issued on a single a while back, drew a strong audience response.

When Cornel Campbell strode onto the stage, looking very relaxed and confident, the band started the rhythm again and he went into his answer cut, ‘I’ll Never Leave,’ for which the audience showed a startled appreciation. Then, as the first few notes of the familiar favourite ‘Boxing’ rang, out, whoops and hollers demanded a rewind – and the bright version that followed propelled the band along to a great version of ‘Rope In’, which Cornel playfully extended by toasting a few mutated lines from ‘One Love Jamdown’, as ‘Love Inna England,’ as well. ‘Up Park Camp/No Man’s Land’ had brilliant horn lines, and some call-and-response chants with the audience, before ‘Queen Of The Minstrel’ emerged, sounding absolutely grand. By the time singer and band reached for ‘Stars’, the packed audience was so enthralled that they demanded a double rewind, and the less common ‘Blessed Are They’ was another thrill. ‘I Am The Gorgon’ got another rewind, though Cornel quashed it to set the record straight, reminding the audience that Bob Marley adapted the concept in ‘Rat Race’, and that it was ultimately adapted by Ninjaman. Back into the song with gusto, his falsetto sounded just as on-form as the original. ‘Mash I Down’ on the ‘Right Time’ rhythm was another killer that resulted in a rewind, and ‘Jah Jah Me No Born Yah’ was made all the more dramatic by more trumpet and sax soloing, as Cornel’s vocals went into overdrive. We’d passed the hour mark some time ago but the audience was bawling for more, so it was up to the plate for a few encores: ‘100 Pounds of Collie’ was another excellent number that you don’t hear every day, and versions of the classics ‘Please Be True’ and ‘My Conversation’ reminded of Cornel’s group works with the Sensations and Uniques. Then, a stunning take of ‘My Country’ had wicked horns and a fearsome drum and bass interlude, before a closing cut of ‘Stalag’ let everyone know that ‘The Gorgon Returns’.

This concert was one of the best I have seen in a long time. The band readily met the challenge provided by the pairing and Cornel seemed perfectly content with their backing. The whole night had an organic, unforced sound and no one was going through the motions, while the intimacy of the venue added to the authenticity of the night. Hats off to Cornel and the Soothsayers for such a brilliant pairing, and watch out for a collaborative album in the works.

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