Toots and the Maytals, Concorde 2, Brighton
Jessie Ware, Plan B, London
If ever someone needed to relax, it's Toots
Sunday 19 August 2012
There's a fine line between "irie" and "irascible", and Toots Hibbert dances back and forth across it all night long. For the Jamaican ska legend, something is amiss. We're only halfway through immortal opener "Pressure Drop" when he wanders over to the sound desk, remonstrating with the engineer about some perceived shortcoming. And Hibbert isn't the type to take a show-must-go-on, grin-and-bear-it approach: at another seaside gig, in Cleethorpes three days earlier, he walked offstage due to dissatisfaction with the PA. One way or another, this is gonna be an interesting night.
In the month that Jamaican independence has its 50th anniversary, and Usain Bolt's gold-winning running spikes are still warm from the track, it's a good time to be seeing one of Jamaica's finest, and they don't come much finer than Toots and the Maytals. With a record-breaking 31 Jamaican No 1s, the Maytals were arguably bigger back home than The Wailers, and folklore has it that Chris Blackwell signed Bob Marley to Island only because Blackwell was unable, temporarily, to secure the signature of Hibbert. Toots was, we're reminded tonight, the man who first used the term reggae itself on the single "Do the Reggay" (sic).
The Maytals exist in a permanent monochrome of the mind: it's hard to imagine them in anything other than black and white, pictured leaning against some Trenchtown doorway. While reggae moved on, the Maytals have remained synonymous with vintage Sixties and Seventies sounds and styles.
It's weird, then, seeing Toots in the high-definition flesh, wearing a gold-on-black jerkin, like some reggae gladiator, and you definitely don't wanna hear a Korg synthesiser (a little too prominent on a couple of numbers). But close your eyes, listen to the 66-year-old's still-gorgeous voice, and the charm of the classics is undiminished.
One reggae snob snarls "this is pop music" as he leaves, but he's in a tiny minority. Yes, it's pop music, and that's the point: the call-and-response catchiness of hits such as "Funky Kingston" and "Monkey Man", which, thanks to covers by The Specials and Amy Winehouse, sends the whole place nuts.
Guitarist Carl Harvey introduces Toots as "the hardest-working man in showbusiness", and he really is a reggae James Brown, right down to the frenetic speed-ska outros which invariably end every song.
And the temper. The waves of love from the crowd are such that no one complains when he asks us to call him by his spiritual name "Naya", but he doesn't look very spiritual when he begins complaining about his mic, and tells someone: "Why don't you go take a piss somewhere, and leave me alone?"
By the encore "54-46 (Was My Number)", a reference to his two-year stretch in prison for possession of marijuana and the song whose bassline was famously sampled by Rebel MC & Double Trouble on "Street Tuff", he's at it again, gesticulating at the beleaguered techy. Cheer up, Toots. You're sounding great. Have a smoke.
Plan B is a traditional pre-gig drinking den on Brixton Road between the Tube and the Academy: it is, literally, the place you stop off on the way to somewhere bigger. Which makes it a fitting place, right now, for a Jessie Ware show. The 26-year-old Londoner, best known for her vocals with SBTRKT, finds herself facing a sell-out crowd for the launch of her album Devotion, and jokes that it's the first time her mum hasn't bought all the tickets.
Ware's wares consist of muted, subtle, accomplished but essentially traditional soul tunes, reminiscent of Massive Attack's more mainstream moments. When she duets with SBTRKT's own Sampha on Bobby Caldwell's 1978 quiet storm classic "What You Won't Do for Love", they come over like a Flack and Hathaway for the digital age.
On "No to Love" she's joined on bass and vocals by co-writer Dave Okumu from electro-rockers The Invisible, still walking on crutches after narrowly surviving being electrocuted onstage in Nigeria in May. Wherever Jessie Ware is heading next – and it'll be bigger places than Plan B – you get the feeling Dave's just glad to be here at all.
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