REVIEW / The big tease: Phil Johnson on Chaka Demus and Pliers in Newport

Phil Johnson
Sunday 18 September 2011 09:23

Never mind the neat binary opposition of rude ragga attack and lovers' rock caress, with Chaka Demus and Pliers we're talking the raw and the cooked, reggae style. Fat and thin, rough and smooth, body and soul, earth and air . . . you name it, and big, brassy Chaka and oh-so-smooth Mr Pliers mix it up.

The music may come courtesy of that other archetypal pairing, producers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, but the incredible success of the formula (platinum sales for an album by a previously unknown Third World act) owes an awful lot to the way the two front men answer some fundamental urge for duality, like a Laurel and Hardy of the digital age.

Outside the Newport Centre, courting couples, older ragga fans, even the occasional straight rocker queued around the block, patrolled by trench-coated touts who had to buy before they could sell. Little girls are big fans too: in the primary schools of the nation, 'Tease Me' has become a playground anthem; at the Newport Centre, children were carried from the crush like victims of Beatlemania.

The long, teasing wait for the main attraction was partly to blame. The show began at half past seven, but it was way past many punters' bedtimes when the stars arrived; Chaka resplendent in swathes of gold satin, Mr Pliers restrained in a dark admiral's costume. The cross-talk patter of their records has a visual equivalent: Chaka is all energy, charging about, while Pliers stays more or less still, holding the attention through the sweetness of his voice. It's a great voice too; crying, pleading, and full of odd echoes of English folk-songs and sea-shanties. But Chaka is the children's favourite, the Big Daddy of the pair (though he's less fat, and Pliers less thin, than you expect).

They kept the hits to the very end. As a result, the initial hysteria of the audience slowly gave way to a kind of benign tolerance; we've seen the moves, learned to separate the fat from the thin, where are the singalongs? When they come, they come back-to-back, the audience getting to sing verse and chorus word-perfectly. Hysteria wells up again, and the principals look overwhelmed by the response. Who knows whether the success of the formula can continue (the failure of the last single 'Murder She Wrote' raises some doubts), but this was no mere fly-by-night, cash-in performance. Chaka Demus and Pliers are actually very good; they do translate from studio sampling- deck to live performance, and they can communicate to a mass audience. It may not be reggae revival time just yet, but the populism of their appeal is truly engaging. The double-act, at least, is back with a vengeance.

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