The first time I saw Olu Dara and his extraordinary band was in a funky little bar in the Caribbean where the combination of creole blues, abundant Bloody Marys and an utterly transfixed local audience made it a night to remember. Tonight he was playing Camden Town. When Dara stepped down from the stage and began to perambulate through the crowd, tooting his cornet as he went, you wondered if you should call the police in case he was mugged; he's only from Brooklyn after all.
Dara has done almost everything since he left his home in Natchez, Mississippi in the Fifties to see the world with Uncle Sam. For years, he was an obscure name on avant-garde loft-jazz recordings, where his trumpet or cornet parped freely for the likes of Oliver Lake or David Murray, though he had a secondary career writing the music for off-off Broadway plays by black female authors.
Then, in 1999, he emerged as a Taj Mahal-styled global blues guitarist and singer with an album on Warner Brothers, for whom he recently released a follow-up, Neighbourhoods. As if all this weren't enough, Dara is also father to the rapper Naz, which makes him a very cool old dude indeed.
This coolness extends to Dara's impeccably hip appearance (slight frame, slicked-back hair, pencil moustache, you get the picture), and demeanour (humorous and slack, yet feistywith it), and even to the old dude's quartet of old dudes, who have perfected that fabulous trick common to the best black music whatever its geographical point of origin of being able to keep a riff going for what seems like days.
On the band's best known song, the chorus goes: "Your lips, your lips, your lips, your lips, are juicy!", and then the incredible guitarist, Ivan Ramirez, plays African high-life patterns the apparent repetitions of which conceal a whole world of intricate details. It might not sound like much, but I assure you it's more than enough for a night's entertainment, especially in Camden Town, which on Wednesday was disconcertingly hot and sultry.
Exactly who the constituency is for this, on the face of it, rather recondite form of musical address is bewildering, but the Jazz Café was fairly packed and everyone seemed to know the tunes. There was an element of what might be termed sports-blues fans present, but also a contingent of women of all colours, and a few floating voters. But everyone sang: "Your lips, your lips, your lips, your lips, are juicy!", over and over again.