Despite its relatively modest size Mostly Jazz, Funk and Soul has an impressive track record when it comes to booking genuine 100% musical legends and this year two names really stood out, Ginger Baker, arguably one of the most influential drummers of all time, and Mavis Staples who, as part of The Staple Singers helped to both shape and soundtrack the US civil rights movement back in the 60s. More on both of them later but as is traditional there were plenty of treats on the Friday afternoon to justify booking the time off work/ringing in sick/‘working from home’...ahem. Free School (now with added Greg Bird) continued their sonic journey into space, Moroccan born Albare laid down some sublime Latino jazz grooves and Jay Prince kept things nicely chilled with the kind of laid back hip hop that makes Snoop seem hyperactive. Sons of Kemet made an early pitch for act of the weekend with an intoxicating mix of jazz, West Indian rhythms and bowel rumbling tuba. The kind of music that makes you want to rip off your clothes and dance naked round a fire...happily for all concerned I resisted the temptation. Local heroes The Peaky Blinders stuffed more hits into their all too short set than you might think possible (including a cover of Monkey Man, perhaps in anticipation of the Kings Heath Monkey Man’s appearance in a wardrobe busting variety of outfits over the weekend) paving the way for Kraak and Smaak.
Okay, as names go it might not be the best but this Dutch collective were every bit as addictive, fusing 90s style Euro house and disco beats with some fabulously funky basslines. If Chic had formed in Europe in 1990 this is what they’d sound like. Several hundred dancing festival goers can’t be wrong, this lot ‘kraak-ed’ it.
Ever wondered what would happen if you kidnapped Prince and made him smoke ‘erb for six months? You’re not alone. Radio Riddler (the side project of Fun Lovin’ Criminals’ Frank and Brian), who may well themselves have sparked up enough joints to keep Howard Marks busy for a lifetime, clearly also pondered this question late one fuggy night and, oddly enough, it actually works.
It’s perfect festival fare and their reggae-fied versions of everything from Let’s Go Crazy to When Doves Cry were pretty ‘spliffing’.
Omar’s band may have been detained at a border somewhere but you can’t keep a good Souleyman down and backed by a rather glam looking lady with a laptop he treated the early evening crowd to the truly unique and exotic sound of Syrian rave, perfect for A-ravian nights I guess. Canadian six-piece Soul Jazz Orchestra closed the second stage in fine style with their mix of Latin and Afro grooves that, at their best, came across like the dream soundtrack to some ultracool Blaxploitation movie. Apparently Stevie Wonder’s a fan and that’s as good a recommendation as any.
Day one climaxed with Fun Lovin’ Criminals’ fan friendly, hits heavy set. Huey was in fine motherfuckin’ form (if you’d had a fiver for every time he said ‘motherfucker’ you’d be motherfuckin’ rich).
From the laid back groove of King Of New York through to the band’s unofficial anthem, Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em and on to the biggies Scooby Snacks, Barry White and last number of the night Fun Lovin’ Criminal itself it was a timely reminder (20 years or so after they formed) that FLC actually have some pretty awesome tunes under their belts and the informal laid back style of tonight’s (‘erb enhanced maybe?) performance certainly made the best of ‘em.
Nice to hear at least one band pay tribute to Tommy Ramone today (his death was announced on the morning of day two), kudos to the Atlantic Players for their hugely enjoyable set of classic soul hits too before The Heels took ska billing on the Second Stage with some rather cool versions of the Mission Impossible theme tune and Billy Jo Royal’s Hush (perhaps best known in its Deep Purple or Kula Shaker incarnations). Day Two was, as is now traditional, curated by Craig Charles who’s arguably doing more to keep the soul and funk flag flying than most. The day before was his birthday and what better way to celebrate than by seeing son Jack Tyson-Charles (mum/actress Cathy Tyson was also spotted in the crowd) blow the place apart as vocalist for Lack Of Afro, Adam Gibbon’s mission to create new soul and funk classics.
He’s succeeding too with tracks like Holding My Breath coming across as a perfect floor filler and, in true saving the best till last fashion, Recipe For Love sounding like a crate digger’s wet dream.
Next up Alexia Coley looked a million dollars in her red dress, she sounded pretty darn great too. If Amy (Winehouse) and James (Brown) had got jiggy Alexia might well have been their lovechild. As the sun beat down the next few acts took it in turns to try to out sweat each other. I reckon you could measure great live soul performances in sweat, with a teaspoon for those who couldn’t give a damn and a bucket for those who put their heart and soul into it. Myron and E were up first, the kind of old skool vocal duo that for some reason seemed to have pretty much died out with Sam and Dave. Loved the co-ordinated dance moves and the super smooth vocals of Myron (Glasper) coupled with the rawer (and enigmatically named) E’s were blended in soul heaven. Definitely a bucket worthy performance.
Next up Hannah Williams and the Tastemakers gave the crowd a brief chance to catch its collective breath and, as you’d expect from someone who’s supported the mighty Sharon Jones, the girl can sing bringing a rare knack of moving from the sweet and soulful to the kind of gutsy growl that Joplin traded in. Being a lady she didn’t sweat of course but we’ll award her a bucket too. Omar Souleyman may have provided the WTF moment on Day One (in a good way of course) but King Khan and The Shrines outdid everyone with an irresistibly nuts mix of psychedelic soul, R & B and garage punk sung by Armish Khan, a chunky Canadian of Indian heritage who perhaps didn’t do his best to win over the crowd by not knowing where the hell he was. You can forgive him though (I’m guessing him and his relentlessly enthusiastic band of merry men don’t know where the hell they are most of the time) when he puts on a show like this. With larynx shredding shrieks and freak beat tunes it’s like being transported back to some speed fuelled house party in 70s Detroit.
Can he kick it? Yes he Khan.
It takes some act to follow that but Cody Chesnutt nailed it. Channelling the spirit of Marvin Gaye but with his own unique feel this dude could well be the most soulful man on planet earth right now. Sporting an army helmet throughout (it’s a look I guess) he blazed through tracks from his crowdfunded album Landing On A Hundred (which should frankly be required listening for anyone with ears) putting on the sort of gig that I thought only existed in grainy footage on You Tube these days. The fact that he was still there signing and selling copies of his album at the merch stand for a good 20 minutes or so after the show tells you all you need to know. Give the man a bucket? Nahhh, the dude deserves a swimming pool.
Highlight of the whole weekend for me and, quite clearly, many others.
“It’s taken me 50 years to have the best birthday evvvvaaahhhhh!” yelled Craig Charles before introducing the next band. That’s the kind of statement that you’d normally take with a sack of salt but it really was shaping up to be that kind of day and Ibibio Sound Machine didn’t let the side down. With possibly the most diverse band line-up in the world (seriously, there were less countries represented in the World Cup) their mix of West African high life, tribal rhythms, synths, funky jazzy brass and anything else they want to chuck into the mix got more people up and shaking their ass than anyone else. I seem to have accidently invented a dance that lead singer Eno adopted for The Peacock Song too...I say dance it’s more like fanning your hands out like a peacock behind your head but if it takes off I’m happy to take credit for it.
Awooga! Does Craig Charles know how to put together a crowd pleasing DJ set? Hell yes. Something old, something new, something funky...and souly too...if heaven has a clubnight Charles will be the DJ (no trainers though...and Francis of Assissi can do one if he thinks he’s getting in with those sandals). “This was the best birthday I’ve ever had...if I wasn’t sweatin’ so much you could tell I was cryin”. Awwww bless, now that’s soul. Speaking of which Day Two was topped off, cherry on the cake style, with the legend that is Miss Mavis Staples. A mere 64 years into her career she’s still in remarkably fine voice, far better than the last time I had the pleasure of seeing her nearly a decade or so ago in fact. There’s a patina to that voice that speaks of a 10,001 nights on the road, numerous civil rights marches in the 60s and a lifetime of Sundays in church.
Kicking off with Come Go With Me she had us in the palm of her hand from the outset swiftly followed by For What It’s Worth and Freedom Highway from back in the day and I Like The Things About Me from 2013’s album One True Vine, separated by decades but united by the same kind of pride and quest for equality that helped change the world. How many other artists can lay such a claim eh? A stunningly soulful cover of The Weight and the more recent Everything Is Everything (Lauren Hill) continued to brilliantly balance the old with the new before she left us with a truly sublime I’ll Take You There. She sure did...
And the Lord sayeth let there be jazz! Day Three’s always the jazziest of the lot and Scottish ivory tinkler Ray Harris sprinkled on the acid with a remarkably upbeat set for midday on a Sunday. I always feel for the early acts and Harris certainly deserved a later slot and bigger crowd. Check out the Latin tinged Where Do We Begin and the bluesy lament of Nothing Like You to hear what you missed. Ortet laid on some nicely chilled and contemplative jazz grooves, perfect for a little beard stroking, before funky ‘Felas’...and lady...London Afrobeat Collective got the hips moving again (their lead singer did things with her hips that would put me in attraction for a month...good grief). Prime Minister in particular was a prime slice of Afrobeat and if you’re looking for an introduction to this most infectious of genres you may well have to go to Africa itself to hear anything better. From Africa to Latin America and Sara Coleman added some ‘ay caramba!’ to the mix with her Brazilian Project before The Heliocentrics left planet earth altogether.
Imagine Paloma Faith fronting an acid funk band and you’ll have some idea of their sound with set highlight Nuclear War sounding like the sort of track early era Moloko may well have dreamt of recording. It was indeed a “motherfucker”. Reed Bass flew the Birmingham with some neat jazz fusion and great solos, including one from the drummer, perhaps mindful of who was up next...
Ginger Baker may have spent much of the last 50 years or so playing hide and seek with the grim reaper but he’s still here. Just. “There’s a competition to predict when I’ll pop my clogs onstage” he wheezed after one solo “Second prize is a week in Manchester...first prize...two weeks in Manchester”. It’s the way he tells ‘em. Remarkably though he seems to come back to life behind a drum kit, playing with all the intuitive ease of man born with sticks in his hands.
His current band, Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion, has a distinctly Afrocentric vibe, a passion that no doubt dates back to his jams with Fela Kuti back in the late 60s and early 70s and this set fused the two genres perfectly. “I need a piss” he said suddenly half way through and wandered off, returning a few moments later to continue the show. Given that he was once voted the musician least likely to survive the 60s it’s easy to forgive such foibles and, whilst he may not have got the biggest reception of the weekend those in the know recognised they were in the presence of greatness...even if he’d quite possibly smash you in the face with a snare drum if you’d had the snivelling audacity to tell him so.
The Stevie Wonder-ful Trope revisited that artist’s back catalogue adding jazz to the soul and soul to the jazz before Courtney Pine’s hugely entertaining set won over pretty much every man, woman and child in the place.
Seemingly capable of playing every tune ever written on his sax (often in just one number too) he’s the kind of dude that could motivate a corpse to get up and dance, underlining just how joyful and unifying jazz can be. For 5 minutes the steel drum backed Liamuiga transformed Moseley Park into some kind of West Indian tropical island and if I was stuck on there with just Pine for company I’d be a happy man.
If you were looking to compile the ultimate party album it’s a safe bet that they’d be several Family Stone tracks on there and this evening the band dished up the very best of them, from Sing A Simple Song right through to the spellchecker’s nightmare Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).
This current line up features three of the original members, Jerry Martini, Cynthia Robinson and Greg Errico, with Alex Davis doing a fine job of filling Sly’s boots and together they delivered the hands in the air climax that this year’s Mostly Jazz, Funk and Soul deserved with I Want To Take You Higher inducing the kind of crowd euphoria that normally takes a sackload of illegal substances. Glorious. Earth, Wind and Fire may have been absent but ‘water’ a way to end things.