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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan

The Barbican, London, March 10th 2009
Isn’t it nice, Serge, and wonderfully satisfying, when you discover the answer to a long-standing mystery? I, for example, had never figured out where all that Sci-Fi P-Funk stuff that underpinned George Clinton’s Parliament and Funkadelic, and Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band, came from. It seemed, as the youth of today might say, somewhat ‘random’. But now, thanks to Jerry Dammers, founder of both the Specials and the 2-Tone record label, I know. Collins and Clinton were following the lead of band-leader, cosmic philosopher and electronic keyboards pioneer, Sun Ra, and the various manifestations of his jazz Arkestra, who still perform today, over fifteen years after his death. Where did Ra get his ideas from, I hear you asking? Well that’s simple. He went to Saturn, possibly in the late 1930s, an incident, that as one might imagine, shaped his life for ever after. Ra, already a practised professional musician, used this experience to reshape his musical and political ideas – with the Arkestra donning outlandish costumes inspired by both outer space, and Ra’s interest in all things Egyptian - and increasingly pushing at the musical boundaries of jazz. Ra was quick to adopt new musical technology, including one of the first prototype mini-moog synthesisers, but at the same time showed an enduring respect for the great ‘standards’ and a particular liking for the songs of Walt Disney: Ra and his Arkestra collaborated with Hal Wilner for his first venture into a Disney tribute album.
So what? Well, Jerry Dammers, something of a recluse since his great days in the late 70s and 80s, has put together what might be termed a rather sophisticated tribute band to Sun Ra and his music. It’s the Spatial AKA Orchestra, and in this one-off Barbican show they’re performing ‘Cosmic Engineering’, described as a tribute to Sun Ra “and other musical mavericks”.
Jerry Dammers
Jerry Dammers
I’m not sure if Dammers has been to Saturn (let’s face it, Coventry might have been enough), but he certainly seems to have taken the Sun Ra stuff right to his heart: “a lot of times it was humorous, and a lot of times it was ridiculous, and a lot of times it was right on the money”, said one former band-member. The stage is dressed with left-over exhibits from the Tutankhamen exhibition at our great 02 in Greenwich last year, and a bevy of redundant props from the BBC’s fantastic Dr Who series (vintage 1963-2008). Overhead a spaceship hangs in the air, piloted by lifeless aliens.
To the stage left, Dammers, cloaked and masked to both the front and back of his head, is surrounded by a crescendo of keyboards and begins to vamp out a typically disjointed and abrupt Raesque solo. It’s so engrossing that it’s a while before anyone notices the band, chanting (there’s a lot of chanting) and playing ‘After the end of the world’, as they walk, costumed from head to toe like the extras from ‘Carry on Cleo’, to the stage. When the Photographer sees them she starts, fearful that a childhood nightmare of being attacked by Cybermen is being played out for real.
Photographer's worst
The Photographer's worst nightmare
What followed was a wonderfully entertaining and joyful hour and a half delivered by a top class band featuring the stellar saxophone line-up of Denys Baptiste, Larry Stabbins, Jason Yarde and Nathaniel Facey. Zoe Rahman complements Dammers on keyboards, while Francine Luce provided vocals, Anthony Joseph (author of, amongst other things, The African Origins of UFOs) poetry, and Space Ape some memorable singing and, to use an unfashionable phrase, toasting. But there are another dozen or so in the band, all excellent as well. Dammers it may be noted, has a bit of a reputation as a control freak, and he’s certainly in charge here, anxiously flipping the pages of his ring binder (the musician’s badge of authority), striding out to the front of the orchestra and conducting in a sort of scarecrow way, pointing out soloists, and occasionally waving notes at them. But no-one seems to mind – in fact the enthusiasm of the band, which lasts from start to finish (when they chant their way off the stage to ‘Space is the place’ and end up playing outside the coat-check) is quite infectious. As is the music (not all Sun Ra compositions or arrangements): there are some Alice Coltrane tunes; ‘Jungle madness’, written by ‘the High Priest of Exotica’, Martin Denny, and ‘Bird’s Lament’, written by Rastafarian Mystic Cedric Brooks. And some of it – like ‘Unmask the Batman’ – is very funny. But they all get the Dammers’ take on Sun Ra. The eclectic keyboards, tightly-arranged brass lines, the odd band chant or chorus, sparkling solos (it’s invidious, but I’ll call out Nathaniel Facey for his solo on Ra’s ‘Discipline in retrospect’) crumbling into cacophony (there’s a lot of cacophony) and finally recovering into structure. It’s nothing short of bloody brilliant.
Now did I mention the Specials? That was Dammers’ band; we’re off to see them next month minus Dammers, as they’ve chosen to reform without him (“not so”, they say, “yes it is”, says Jerry). Anyway, Jerry referred to his former band only once, so I’ll do the same. What I’ll end on is the sensational version of the Specials’ 1981 hit Ghost Town. It always was the most chilling of songs – as bleak and threatening as the dreary derelict urban landscape it described. Dammers’ Sun Ra version, after a jolly start where we all gargle the introductory melody, turns into an even more sinister and dark piece, with Space Ape giving the lyrics added vibrancy and poignancy. When this was a hit, if you don’t recall, we were in a recession in the UK, businesses were falling like flies, unemployment was soaring and innocents were being murdered in Northern Ireland. Ring any bells? Too much fighting on the dance floor indeed. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)
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