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 Chinas Terracotta Warriors coming
alive to the groups 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 wont 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 UKs 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 arent 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 groups iconic logo. Steady, are you ready?
Whats 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 havent
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 collectives
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 tonights
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 Burkes 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, heres to
the next thirty years and beyond.
Words : Anna C
Pix : Steve White https://www.flickr.com/photos/45038662@N00/