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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
THE BRAND NEW HEAVIES with N’Dea Davenport, David McAlmont,
Carl McIntosh and Omar, the Barbican, February 2nd 2007
Brand new heavies
In recent years the Barbican has had a pretty good track record of running themed concert series. ‘It came from Memphis’, loosely inspired by Robert Gordon’s obsessively detailed yet compelling book of the same name, saw an inspired series of concerts focussed on the city’s main record labels and spawned a double CD (produced by Gordon) narrating the development of the distinctive sound of Memphis. Last year we had Folk Britannia, staged in conjunction with BBC 4 (the digital TV station with a 0.4% share of the British TV audience - which doesn’t include me), a well thought out series of three shows which traced the progress of the ‘folk tradition’ in the UK since the 1950s. These featured a veritable who’s who of British folk from young to old, and also, as readers may remember, Billy Bragg. So I had high hopes of this year’s Soul Britannia, even if an aversion to the square box in the corner and a lack of digital connectivity meant I wouldn’t be able to follow the TV documentaries. I bought tickets for the Soul Britannia Allstars (with the likes of Madeline Bell, Linda Lewis and the AWB’s Hamish Stuart) – a night which promised to “illustrate soul and reggae music as the soundtrack to a Britain torn asunder by the new politics of race” and was frankly pissed off when the event was moved a day and replaced by The Brand New Heavies and their guests, a gig marking “the triumph of black culture in the UK”. For the sake of completeness the third concert was Transatlantic Soul Connections, with Geno Washington, Jimmy James and veteran Sam Moore (the other half of Sam and Dave, who’s been doing the rounds in the UK promoting his new CD Overnight Sensational).
I have to say that taken on their own merits the concerts, unlike those of previous series, seemed to do little to support the conceit of the theme – perhaps you really needed to see the (apparently well received) TV shows to get the bigger picture around the contribution of American and Caribbean influences to the development of British music. As it was, the programme - “Soul Britannia is a transformative journey in which black and white Britons are brought through difficult times by music, who find their identity in taking from the Americans rather than copying them; it’s a journey into the body, into the groove, and out of that old-time stiffness into something funkier”, sounded like bullshit. In fact I began to wonder if Billy Bragg hadn’t written it.
Moan over. What I should say is that the Brand New Heavies, pioneering acid-jazz tinged funksters from the unlikely London Borough of Ealing, were simply awesome. Fronted by the tireless N’Dea Davenport the three original Heavies, bassist Andrew Levy, drummer Jan Kincaid and guitarist Simon Bartholomew were given added presence by keyboards and a thumping three-piece brass section. They played throughout the night, first with Davenport on vocals, then as backing band to a series of guests showcasing the best in current British soul talent – sometime Bernard Butler collaborator David McAlmont (who wouldn’t win any prizes for dress-sense with his awful brown suit), the reclusive Carl McIntosh of Loose Ends, and ‘nu-soul’ prodigy Omar. N'dea Davenport
Mica Paris was apparently also on the bill but called off. The ‘guest stars’ didn’t get a lot of time – really just long enough to remind us of their big hits and why they were there – so McAlmont sang ‘Yes’ (sadly without Butler’s guitar), McIntosh ‘Hanging on a string’ and Omar ‘There’s nothing like this’. Davenport then re-emerged for another thirty minutes or so (during which she sang the Heavies’ outstanding version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I don’t know why (I love you)’, which I’ve been humming ever since) before the whole crew joined for a funk-fuelled finale tribute to the late James Brown.
Brand New Heavoes and Omar
The Brand New Heavies and Omar
Really apart form McAlmont’s suit and shoes (did I mention the shoes?) my only complaint was that the mix gave such prominence to Levy’s bass at the expense of the skilful and subtle guitar work of Bartholomew – but that’s a minor point really. The audience, a mixture of 1990s soul survivors and clubbers, for whom much of the Heavies’ songs have become dance floor anthems, loved every minute of it. Davenport had the audience in the stalls on their feet and dancing half way through the second song and they didn’t stop all night, despite the best efforts of the Barbican’s aghast stewards. It was a fantastic atmosphere which continued afterwards in the foyer with MC for the night Jazzie B and the Soul 11 Soul sound system. So maybe I shouldn’t moan at all about the weakness of the intellectual construct that had been shaped around these gigs, and instead simply accept the fact that Soul Britannia was really just an excuse for a few cracking nights at the Barbican. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

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