Ok, so a lot of people know Jerry Dammers as the guy who formed The Specials and the Two Tone Record label, releasing the seminal “Gangsters” on 28 July 1979 and ushering in a UK ska revival that eventually influenced bands on both sides of the Atlantic.
More recently, Mr. Dammers has been presenting his own take on the genius that was Sun Ra by putting together an 18-piece orchestra and taking his music and his listeners on a voyage to outer space. As if this wasn’t enough, Dammers has thrown in other ecletic influences such as those by Martin Denny (the American composer known as the “father of exotica”), Alice Coltrane (classically trained pianist and wife of John Coltrane) and Sir Coxsone Dodd (Jamaican record producer of Ska and Reggae).
The band start by weaving their way through the packed Barbican Hall from the back of the venue. All the while they’re chanting, drumming and playing various other percussive instruments. All the musicians are wearing a great collection of capes, masks, glittery trousers and natty hats. The stage is decorated with Egyptian symbols and mannequins holding instruments, so there’s plenty to look at even before we’ve seen Mr. Dammers. When he does appear, he’s wearing a safari suit and Eqyptian mask on the back of his head. There’s a nice array of keyboards set up at the front of the stage and he takes up position in the middle of them.
Once they start playing, the band proove to be tight musicians, with solos highlighting obvious skill while never being too flashy. They’re a tight band which is tough to pull off with that many people and the collective sound is joyful, funky, jazzy and uplifting. Jerry Dammers introduces each tune and gives a bit of background to each song so that puts each piece in context. The slowest, darkest piece he dedicates to “my old band The Specials” and says he wanted to do the much talked about comeback but with new songs. He was never too keen on the greatest hits tour that’s now been put together but the other six members wanted to do it so he was forced out of it.
One of my favourite Sun Ra tracks is his take on the “Batman Theme” and Dammers gleefully leads the band through a ten minute spaced out version. Vocal duties are taken care of by Ms. Francine Lucha who has a very spectral singing style that perfectly compliments the music. Anthony Joseph, spoken word poet and author of “The African Origins of UFOs” recites some pretty good poetry on a couple of songs. Both vocalists are a good addition to the overall band sound. Dammers has put a pretty good ensemble together. I recognised Denys Baptiste on soprano sax, Larry Stabbins on tenor sax (who played with Working Week and has been on the scene since the Sixties), Crispin “Spry” Robinson (who has played percussion with lots of different bands including Galliano) and Zoe Rahman on piano who was nominated for a Mercury Prize. Thinking about it, Zoe was the only female musician in the band apart from the singer.
The band end with a sprawling version of Sun Ra’s “space is the place” and end the gig by moving off stage, once again in single file. They weave their way through the crowd and proceed to play in the foyer of the Barbican Hall for a further 15 minutes. As the venue shares a common foyer with the cinema, there were some surprised cinemagoers stopping to watch these Egyptian masked musicians making their joyful noise unto the creator 🙂
So, a night out with The Spatial A.K.A involves masks, costumes, jazz, poetry, ska, lounge, and dub. Plus buckets of charisma from a grinning Jerry Dammers. Top stuff! Can’t wait to take my next trip to Saturn with them again.