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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Jerry Dammers’ Spatial A.K.A. Orchestra
The Barbican, London, November 18th 2011

You know how it is, Serge.  Some whisky lovers (the humourless Calvinistic sort with ‘No Fun’ tattooed on their foreheads) have strict and clearly-defined ways of assessing the merits of whiskies. 


Often based on a firmly-held set of misbeliefs, fantasies and fallacies, they nonetheless have an exacting and unbending  set of parameters against which the qualities of all liquids are mercilessly judged.  The same might be so for music, or even might apply to those pompous and po-faced panels of judges who inhabit the nightmare world of want-to-be celebrity ‘reality’ TV shows that dominate the drivel regurgitated on a nightly basis from ‘the box in the corner’.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

Take last night for example.  As we climbed the steps to leave the Barbican Hall we had those two blokes behind us who always seem to be at gigs. Older than they wished they were, overweight, too much beer, not enough money, and unloved.  And always uncomfortably like Laurel and Hardy.  So the know-it-all was pontificating on the finer points of the Vox Continental organ, famously played by Jerry Dammers in his band The Specials: “you see, Neville, the first batch of 100 or so MKI Continentals had the "square top", covered in orange Rexine.  Red was introduced later, and UK organs were made with both Red and Orange tops.  Supposedly, a small number of very early Continentals were covered in Red and Blue, to match AC30 amps of the same colour.  Rexine was used to cover Continental tops, and came in orange, red and grey.  It was made by ICI in the 60s, and the brand name has since been taken over by F.J. Ratchford, Ltd., which sells it as a book-covering material …”. Meanwhile Neville was struggling to make himself  heard, with a single, and joyfully simple mantra;  “No, Brian, listen.  That was the best thing I’ve heard.  That was just the best thing”.  And Neville, like everyone else (except Brian, who might also have had ‘No Fun’ stamped on his forehead), had a huge smile on his face.  That smile, has I think, to be one of the best ways to judge outstanding quality.

Dammers’ Spatial A.K.A Orchestra has come quite a long way since we saw them play an equally special gig a couple of years ago.  Conceived as a tribute  to Sun Ra’s other-worldly, cosmic and cacophonous Arkestra, Dammer’s outfit initially focused very heavily on the works of Saturn’s most famous musician.  Two years on, and they have found a more individual identity, albeit one based on a very eclectic selection of material, ranging from Ra, to Duke Ellington, Dammers’ compositions new and old, and to Dvorak’s New World Symphony (viewers of British TV should think ‘Hovis commercial’).  Frankly it’s quite hard to keep up with the ever-changing material, genres, and the cast of musicians.  Vocals were provided by Francine Luce, poet Anthony Joseph, reggae veteran Johnny Clarke and even Edgar Broughton (remember him anyone?), delivering a frightening Beefheart pastiche. 

Jerry Dammers at the Royal
Festival Hall, June 2011

Solos flowed from pianist Alcyona Mick, the vibes of Roger Beaujolais and from the brass section including Denys Baptiste on saxophone and Robin Hopcraft on trumpet, while Finn Peters’ flute was at the heart of many of the arrangements.  At the back was a string section, a double bass, electric bass, two guitars, percussionists and the brilliantly powerful drumming of Patrick Illingworth (who on several occasions appeared to be about to explode).    And of course holding the whole thing together, just, was Jerry, fussing from one moment to the next, picking out soloists, leading the orchestra, fighting his microphone stand, losing his place in his sheet music book, and occasionally adding some incisive keyboards.

I read the comment somewhere that The Spatial Orchestra is winning Dammers ‘the best reviews of his career’, and quite rightly so.  It is a brilliantly-conceived piece of musical madness, defying wisdom and convention, and delivering in their place an exhilarating, joyful (despite the dark nature of many of the songs) and thought-provoking multi-sensory experience.  The wonderfully home-made props and costumes (somewhere between early episodes of Dr Who and Carry On films) help define the eccentric nature of the evening, while the brilliantly-chosen visuals, from clips of Sun Ra and fifties’ science fiction imagery, to a knock-out film on brutalistic concrete sixties’ architecture (filmed in France, I believe) by Anthony Stern add a sharp edge to the evening.  None more so than the opening and closing images (accompanied by the Orchestra’s interpretation of Dvorak) by Turner Prize-nominated artist George Shaw of his own home-town: the still desolate and depressed Coventry where Dammers was also brought up, inspiring his most famous song, ‘Ghost Town’.  But for all that it’s still a wondrous affair.  Like everyone else there (except Brian) I’ll be smiling for a long time yet.  Ninety-nine points. - Nick Morgan (concert photograph by Kate)

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