Recessions have generated an impressive songbook, from “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”’s lament for the betrayal of American workers in the Great Depression to The Specials’ depiction of British race riots and unemployment in 1981’s “Ghost Town”.
In economic terms, the current era of crisis is the most severe since the 1930s, yet today’s songwriters have by and large ignored it. Few songs have attempted to address ruinous joblessness rates or shrinking living standards or public outrage at bankers’ bonuses or just plain, old-fashioned grief that the good times have stopped rolling.
Aloe Blacc’s “I Need a Dollar” is an exception. Powered by a rolling piano refrain and chain gang chants, the song is a marvellously catchy underdog anthem in the 1970s tradition of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Blacc’s previous career at Ernst & Young gives it extra piquancy. Financial analysts advise piling into gold in times of uncertainty. Ex-analyst Blacc, laid off in 2003, has instead taken refuge in soul’s golden age.
Appearing in Somerset House’s summer series of concerts, Blacc entered to the teasing strains of “I Need a Dollar”. Then his band swerved off into funk while the Californian, classically attired in porkpie hat, jacket and tie, paid tribute to Gaye, Wonder, James Brown and Al Green.
The show mimicked an old-fashioned soul revue, complete with a dance segment modelled on the television show Soul Train and evangelising passages when the band hit a groove and Blacc adopted the role of secular preacher. “A lot of good things going on, I want to share them with you,” he announced at the outset.
Blacc’s positive frame of mind was a mixed blessing. “Green Lights” was delightful summery soul about everything clicking into place. But “You Make Me Smile” was a soggy platitude about smiling through troubled times, while “I Need a Dollar” was needlessly padded out with a feelgood reggae interlude.
When he kept it tight he took the show to another level. His singing was fluent and supple; the backing musicians were tight. “Miss Fortune” told a hypnotic story of a man marrying badly for money, while a homesick cover of “California Dreaming” brought the show to a resonant conclusion. The “voice of the recession” is at his best when he dials down the positive thinking.