SOUL II SOUL / Natasha Watts
Corn Exchange, Cambridge 2/11/18

I have two lasting memories of Soul II Soul from the late ‘80s. The first is from a dance class at primary school during which I was encouraged to portray China’s Terracotta Warriors’ coming alive to the group’s classic track, er, ‘Back to Life’. Of course, I threw myself into it – it is one of my earliest memories of a group of eight year olds rigidly moving to the fantastic vocal of Caron Wheeler. The second is of my older brother in his bedroom, probably practicing ‘the running man’ to the dulcet tones of Jazzie B, a leather Soul II Soul medallion round his neck and his curly hair like a pineapple on his head. He also had a massive red pair of dungarees but we won’t say much more about that. Their album ‘Club Classic Vol 1’ was therefore an important part of my childhood and musical education. However, as I say, I was only eight so I suspect I am one of the youngest people here this evening, the rest of the audience now generally sporting sensible shirts and greying middle-aged hair, reliving their youth. Perhaps this is why the venue has opted for a seated show as well, which strikes me as a bit odd. Are people in their 40s really not able to stand up for a few hours anymore?

Support act, Natasha Watts, gets people moving. A massive name in the UK’s soul scene, she has an easy and natural manner. In a thick London accent (despite apparently being born in Berkshire), she is adorably genuine, telling us that her 76-year-old Dad is here tonight and, in fact, goes everywhere with her, blowing a kiss to one of the boxes before launching into another melodic song from her latest album, ‘My Next Chapter’. Her song writing gets in a time machine back a few decades but it is timeless; given that she has supported the likes of Lisa Stansfield, Omar and even Gladys Knight, it is this classic genre that she falls into. She belts out an ode to a relationship ending in ‘I Do, I Did, I Win’, while ‘Out of my Mind’ brings us to the days of house, some audience members now waving their hands in their air. Throwing in a Jill Scott cover too, she matches the original in tone and an infectious energy. Watts is a born entertainer and when she asks who is going to come to see her again, those who aren’t still propping up the bar justifiably shout an enthusiastic and positive response.

When Soul II Soul appear, everyone is on their feet. Their live set up is incredible. There is not only the standard bass, drums, guitar of most bands but also two violinists, a percussionist, synths and three girl backing vocalists, who bogle and grind as huge video screens flash up the group’s iconic logo. ‘Steady, are you ready? What’s going on?’ the singers tease. The room erupts during this introduction, but, when Jazzie B escorts Caron Wheeler to her microphone a few minutes later, they probably wish they had worn their incontinent pads. She appears shyer than might be expected from someone who has been described as a pioneer of the UK Soul Scene as he takes position on his decks/ raised lectern at the back of the stage. Her voice is certainly confident as she leads the crowd in yet another hit, ‘Keep On Movin, which surely is one of the most played tracks on the radio to this very day. The effect that it has is astounding – as images of Jazzie B appear as a backdrop, it has been three decades since it blasted them into their well respected and prominent position in public consciousness but still sounding majestically current. Fast-forwarding to 1995 with ‘Love Enuff’, vocalist Charlotte Kelly is now in charge, moving onto ‘I Care’, which I haven’t heard really since its release but still know every word. It is a really surreal and quite emotional experience.

Transporting us back to a time where things were in some ways simpler (there were no mobile phones or social media for a start) but also making a statement as to how far we have to go, the collective’s simple message of peace and love is why they have been so enduring, as well as the sheer quality of their arrangements and translation to live performance. It is as uncomplicated as much as it is rich in texture and life-affirming joy. Spanning many genres in tonight’s show, including a nod to the sound systems of West London which have enough bass to literally vibrate the eyeballs, Jazzie B stands aloft like a preacher to his congregation, a conductor of his crew. ‘Cambridge, you have the positive vibes’, he says, possibly still one of the coolest people alive. Perhaps he got his OBE for services to coolness. Anyway, it is truly heart-warming as he next leads a tribute to another one-time vocalist, Melissa Bell (singer Alexandra Burke’s mother) who passed away last year. Reggae fills the room with an energy so immense that it would reach the afterlife and when Wheeler returns for a full version of ‘Back to Life’, nothing else matters to anyone anymore except here and now. An extremely touching and unexpectedly special display of talent that those present will never forget, what Soul II Soul have done for music and culture, we can only salute and thank them. Old school style at its most monumental, here’s to the next thirty years and beyond.

Words : Anna C
Pix : Steve White