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Lee Scratch Perry live at the Electric Brixton

Lee Scratch Perry live at the Electric Brixton

Lee Scratch Perry live at the Electric Brixton

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Report of the show in England, 12 March 2016

Since he still retains such youthful energy, it’s hard to believe that Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is 80 years old. And it’s harder still to understand that ten years have already passed since his special 70th birthday concert, held at the Elysee Montmartre in 2006 with a top-notch band featuring Dennis Bovell and Horsemouth Wallace, with Max Romeo and the Congos as the supporting acts. But I guess, as the old adage goes, ‘Time flies when you’re having fun.’

Lee PerryIn any case, the Super Ape’s special 80th birthday gig I attended was held on 12 March at the Electric Brixton, a venue with all kinds of history attached to it. It was built in 1913 and for many years was the Palladium cinema, which later became part of the Ace cinema chain, but during the 1970s the space morphed into the Ace nightclub, and I attended all kinds of gigs there in the 1980s (including a memorable experimental set by post-punk duo Chris & Cosey, and a screening of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ video at a time when MTV was not quite established; Aswad and Sugar Minott performed there too), so I’ve got fond memories of the place. The Ace later became the Fridge, which never hosted that much reggae, though I once saw the great Roy Shirley there and I remember seeing Soul II Soul’s in-house video shoot, and its basement sister Fridge Bar had the Til Shiloh rave on a Monday night for a time, before the whole thing was shut down by the authorities in 2010. The following year it became the Electric and it has hosted a range of noteworthy artists since its refurbishment, including Jah 9, Yami Bolo, Addis Pablo and Anthony B on a great quadruple bill, and unlike its larger rival down the road, the Brixton Academy, an effort has been made to make sure that the Electric has decent sound acoustics. All of which makes it an ideal place for this special Lee Perry birthday gig.

I reached the venue with my posse around 11:30pm, and the queue was around the block. Getting in took a bit of time, with extensive bag, body and pocket searches, but I can only describe the security as ‘tight but polite’; like the rest of the staff on duty at this event, they maintained a high degree of professionalism. Once inside, since the place was completely packed, finding the right spot took a bit of doing but we ultimately found a good position on the left-hand balcony, an ideal spot for viewing the stage from above. The Trojan Sound System’s set was just coming toward its conclusion, and my friend Richie from Trinidad summed it up perfectly when he said, ‘Nice vibe in the place.’ It was good to see that Trojan still retains the services of vocalists Super Four and Chucky Banton; I couldn’t quite see if Earl Gateshead was there, but Daddy Ad was throwing down a good bit of roots reggae that was eagerly lapped up by the crowd, which was enthusiastic but not overly rowdy; it was a largely white and youthful demographic, with a few older black folks and veteran sound men around, such as Markie Lyrics of local heroes, RDK.

A quick set change got the latest version of Lee Perry’s Upsetters in place, as usual in the form of a Robotics spin-off, driven by the expressive drumming of Sinclair Seales and the bass anchoring of the charismatic Jahpolean. This birthday gig was billed as a Super Ape performance and after the band cranked through a medley of Perry’s hits, they slipped into the title track of that landmark album from 1976, and as usual, the man’s voice could be heard, intoning some off-kilter chants, before he hit the stage in short pants, with a waist-coast and long-sleeved shirt, to a roar from the crowd. But if anyone was expecting the entire Super Ape album, they were in for a disappointment, because the concert veered around Perry’s catalogue. ‘Chase The Devil’ came next with great work from the keyboardist and as Perry lit up a spliff, the crowd erupted once more; showing them some LSP markings on his boots, Perry let the crowd know that God won’t allow drugs, so they should forget about LSD and go for LSP instead. The song ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Battle Of Armagideon album came next, with Scratch expressing love for his fans, while reminding that he has slain the devil, before devolving into loud groans during a tedious wave-along section towards the end. Stepson Noel was momentarily summoned on stage to deliver a glass of birthday bubbly, and then came the Ariwa single ‘Open Door,’ with Perry warbling more platitudes about conquering hell.

Perry’s rendition of Max Romeo’s classic ‘War In A Babylon’ again got good support from the band, with the drummer commanded to make cymbal crashes at strategic points, and the keyboardist perfectly in place with the intricate notes of the horn lines; after stating that doing the right thing will prevent crippling death, Perry began some nonsense scat rhymes, pairing ping pong with King Kong, and so on. Then, ‘Zion’s Blood’ from Super Ape was a mean and moody number, the band tight as Perry decried the stupidity of world politicians, and while running through a jaunty take of George Faith’s version of the soul classic ‘Have Some Mercy (To Be A Lover),’ Perry saluted David Rodigan and Jimmy Cliff. And during his delivery of ‘Jah Live,’ Perry summoned Noel out for an Instagram moment, such was the highly buoyant mood of the crowd.

During a loose take of Marley’s ‘Crazy Baldhead,’ Perry confused everyone by introducing his ‘daughters’ on stage, but these were just a couple of blond female fans, one with a boyfriend in tow, rather than blood relatives; later, a lithe young brunette mounted the stage to entice Perry with her dancing, giving him a hug and a kiss before being ejected. Meanwhile, the band kept things interesting with a ragtime break at the end of the track. ‘Police And Thieves’ came next, with Perry again reminding that God is against drugs such as cocaine, and during ‘Roast Fish And Cornbread,’ Perry got the crowd to do a Knebworth-style lighter display, as he showered the audience with more love. Closing things out was a tight version of ‘Exodus,’ Perry walking backstage to rhythmic shouts of ‘Move!’

Lee Perry

With the whole house on a huge high, the Ariwa posse slotted into place, with Mad Professor at centre stage, flanked by his son Joe and the vocalist Karmelody; a new Aisha track was sung by Aisha herself and everything sounded really fresh, with Prof and Joe keeping up the dub pressure at the mixing desk. Later, there was a guest appearance from lover’s rock queen Carole Thompson, who also had new Ariwa material to air, and then Perry came back out to sing the Heptones’ ‘Party Time,’ giving Joe a series of hearty handshakes, before delivering a few kung-fu moves to the delight of the crowd (even if he’s not as limber as he used to be, he can still grab an extended foot at a 90-degree angle while standing on one leg, which is more than most of us can do). And he hit us with ‘Soul Fire’ too, this part of the programme sounding more cohesive than the performance with the band.

It was stated on the bill that Mad Prof would mix Perry’s live set, but I’m still trying to figure out whether he did or not…the live set lacked the hallmarks of a Mad Prof mix, so I’m not sure if someone else did the honours. In any case, the Ariwa showcase was ace and it kept the audience on the same high, and when the mighty Channel One sound system came on, things stepped up to another level. Selector Mikey Dread played a great vinyl set that was heavy on roots classics, such as Dennis Brown’s ‘Love Jah’ and ‘A True,’ which sounded fantastic resounding through the hall; as toaster Ras Cayleb informed the crowd, you’ve got to know the old to appreciate the new. When they later moved to some UK Steppers, it was the more tasteful end of that side of the spectrum, but everything they played kept the entire place rocking.

I’m not sure why a choice was made to have DJ Vadim in the final slot of the night; to have the progression of Trojan sound to LSP live, to Ariwa and on to Channel One made perfect sense, but then Vadim felt a bit like a step into a different direction. And I’m not saying that to disrespect Vadim, because he’s good at what he does, just that I’m not sure what the thinking was behind that move—maybe it’s just that the crowd would need something more energetic at that late hour. In any case, since it was nearing 4am, after an opening blast of Half Pint’s ‘Greetings’ and a bit of ragamuffin after that, my posse and I made our exit, so I can’t really tell you much about Vadim’s set, other than to say that the crowd was still close to capacity when we left, and everyone seemed to be enjoying it just as much as everything that proceeded it.

Too many reggae gigs in London have overloaded bills that fail to deliver, but this Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry birthday event was really something else. A fitting tribute to the man’s birthday milestone, it was an excellent night that exceeded expectations, and can be a lesson to other promoters in how to do things right. Respect is thus due to the promoters and all of the performers for giving us a night to remember.

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