Photography: Glyn Akroyd / @GlynAkroyd

Big Youth And The Upper Cut Band

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  • Levi Tafari
Positive Vibration @ District 18/8/17

Positive Vibration’s latest offering in their quest to boost the profile of reggae music locally, and indeed, to make Liverpool a Mecca for the genre, sees legendary DJ and toaster BIG YOUTH in town for his first ever Liverpool performance. District is fast becoming the de rigueur venue for such events and with the recent outdoor development of Yard adding to its ambience, the scene is set with a sizeable, good-natured crowd building early on, their mood enhanced by DJs Marley and Vegas’ mix of rare cuts and classics which already had heads nodding and feet shuffling before local poet LEVI TAFARI hit the stage.

Tafari is more than simply a performance poet, he is an urban griot – consciousness raiser, story teller, musician and political activist. Tafari is a skillful orator, you can tap your feet to the rhythm of his words and though he tackles race (“If we weren’t all some colour we’d be transparent!”), poverty and police harassment (“Where were you when the Titanic went down?”) his protest and polemic is laced with good humour. He feels that, as a poet, he should write something romantic and drops a tender love letter to his wife before leaving us with the upbeat participation of Let’s Celebrate Diversity.

British reggae royalty THE UPPER CUT BAND (Horseman, Derek Morgan, Luciano) take to the stage and immediately hit a tight groove that bodes well for the evening. In the shadow of the wings stands Big Youth, arms folded, staring in mock judgement at bass player Ross Erlam. A grin splits his face and he makes his entrance, stepping flamboyantly to the rhythm, silver teeth flashing. When an artist hits the stage with this much swagger, this much joie de vivre, there is an instant connection and the crowd sense immediately that this is going to be a special night. He looks sensational – dark hat, brightly coloured headband atop long dreads, sharp suit set off by a glittering leopard print shirt, chains and rings glinting in the stage lights and a look of righteous fervour in his eyes. That look is the look of the believer and Big Youth is one of the original 70s exponents of conscious reggae, the music a vehicle for his Rastafarian beliefs.

"His ability to switch from fiery orator to arch crowd pleaser in a trice is bewitching"

The lyrics of I Pray Thee run like a chapter from the Old Testament and with fire in his belly Big Youth sets about this cautionary tale for the unbeliever. His voice isn’t technically a thing of beauty but his ability to deliver a spoken word flow is arguably unmatched as he teases out he words, seeming to enjoy each syllable.

Erlam and drummer Bob Pearce have the rhythm on lockdown, an irresistible heartbeat over which Big Youth’s stream-of-consciousness delivery flows, and which will keep the crowd dancing all night long. James Shepherd’s guitar alternately aids the rhythm with a sharp skank, or embellishes it with lovely fluid solo runs, while Calvin Bennion’s swirling, stabbing keys add layers of texture. Big Youth jerks and slides his way across the stage towards the horn section. Sarah Tobias and Megumi Mesaku are blowing up a storm, Stax-like horn phrases punctuating the groove and jazzy solos spiralling into the night. Big Youth clearly delights in Tobias’ lovely flute solo on S90 Skank and gleefully holds the mic down low for Mesaku to blow a storming sax break, which must have been difficult as she looks like she’s about to crack up at Big Youth’s mugging.

The dichotomy of the spiritual and the secular is one that has bedevilled many artists (Marvin Gaye, Little Richard, Al Green for example) but it seems to weigh lightly on the shoulders of Big Youth, and his ability to switch from fiery orator to arch crowd pleaser in a trice is bewitching. Between songs he sends out love for the victims of terror and brings down the wrath on Trump and Kim Jong-un.

Big Youth And The Upper Cut Band Image 2

The Upper Cut Band are alternately rocking District to the rafters or taking it down until the rhythm is barely audible, Big Youth exhorting, the audience transfixed. Throughout the evening his originals morph into a variety of leftfield classics: Bacharach’s What The World Needs Now, Diana Ross’ Touch Me In The Morning, Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams and most, memorably, House Of Dread segueing sweetly into Heatwave’s Mind Blowing Decisions, which the crowd seem to know word for word and take up immediately much to Big Youth’s obvious delight. “Liverpool is the teacher for the England school. Don’t be no fool, it’s cool,” he responds, before thanking US for a beautiful evening! It’s one of those occasions when people turn to look at their neighbours and find their own happiness reflected back in smiles of pure delight.

Following a bravura performance of Hit The Road Jack, Levi Tafari informs us that there won’t be an encore – but the crowd won’t let this one go and Big Youth is persuaded back onstage. It seems that he really wasn’t planning an encore and returns divest of his glam accessories, in a baggy T-shirt. But, with his commitment and passion undimmed, he joins the band as they launch into the classic Real Rock Riddim over which Big Youth delivers a fervent lesson, looking heavenwards, arms outstretched, palms cupped, drawing down a righteous inspiration before sliding effortlessly, delightfully into Diana Ross’ I’m Still Waiting.

Big Youth has delivered his heavy dread message, but with such passion, such élan, and with such a sprinkling of stardust that right here, right now, we are all believers.

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