By Julian Gilmour
9th October was my first time at the Jazz Café since the refurbishment, and they’ve done a great job. The bar areas have been pushed to the edges to open it up, but without loss of intimacy – around the stage you’re still never more than 25 feet from the action. Support act Kioko describe themselves as a multicultural pop/reggae band and did a great job of warming everyone up. They did a really tight set, the songs picking up pace as they went along – Queen of the Dance Floor was my favourite, and I think everyone else’s. As they finished they drilled their name into the crowd, getting us to call it out.
Then we were told it was Legend Time. ‘Legend’ is an overused term these days, but it’s difficult to disagree here. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry has been around music since he started work as a record seller for a Jamaican sound system back in the 50s. He still holds himself very well “I’m 80. What do I do? Exercise and Kung Fu.” From producing Bob Marley and the Wailers to inspiring The Prodigy, his back catalogue, influence and range of collaborations are difficult to overestimate – he’s worked with Keith Richards, George Clinton, even Moby.
My last few visits to the Jazz Café have felt a little like trophy-hunting, seeing old school greats that I’d never got to see before – Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five, then the Sugar Hill Gang, and now Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and The Upsetters (not to be confused with the mainland US Upsetters who were Little Richard’s backing band). These Upsetters are Jamaican through and through, getting their name from the Perry tune I am the Upsetter written about a former boss. Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett and Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith played guitars like they’d had 50 years to practice. They’re a prodigious pair: the former has sired 41 children and the latter has appeared on over 500 albums.
On stage Perry is short in physical stature, but he produces an aura of greatness and that’s what made the night for me. His voice was very smooth, surprisingly so – I hear he’s not the smoker he once was, or the drinker. He paced himself through quite a long set for a man of his years, tirelessly churning out classic after classic. We were treated to Zion Blood as he told us it was is flowing through his veins, he put on his iron shirt for Chase the Devil and when he did I am a madman, in the nicest possible way, it was difficult to disagree. They played the Staple Singers classic I’ll take you there which was a huge crowd-pleaser, and for an encore he came back with a seminal classic from Bob Marley and the Wailers… We were all urged to shout Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry until he returned to the stage, to be rewarded with a funky guitar-heavy rendition of Exodus.
For me, it was just a given that the songs would be great – High Plains Drifter was the last CD I bought before I started streaming music. I love his material and the Upsetters were sounding sharp and together. I may even have been prepared for disappointment on some level, but I truly felt like I was in the presence of someone special. Always one to explore the spiritual, there was a lot of talk about a higher power between songs. He held his arms outstretched, looking very messianic, and urged us to do the same. This kind of rock and roll-as-religion is a difficult thing to pull off, but he managed it, like some kind of bonkers reggae pixie.
Thinking about how lucky I was, I was wondering at one point if I was worthy of being around his madness and magic. He said to the crowd: “You deserve it.”
There were a lot of young people there too, apparently having as good a time as me, ready to carry the baton forward so the shamanic legend that is Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry will continue. If you’ve never experienced his quirky take on reality in person, I suggest he’s a trophy worth going after.