Jerry Dammers’ sweeping tribute to bandleader Sun Ra and Jamaican roots music was a grand-scale epic whose four-hour span had Barbican staff nervously checking their watches for the last Tube home. The 24-piece band included strings, a so-so reggae ensemble and top British jazz names. Anthony Joseph elegantly read poetry with passion, Francine Luce sang like a demented angel and guests toasted and crooned. If this wasn’t enough, archive film and oddly-attired mannequins, stationed with guitars at the ready, kept you engaged.
Dammers was a founder member of key British ska revival band The Specials. Here, he was an enthusiastic and homely host, adding zappy electronics and squelchy reggae organ, conducting with a pointed finger or a nod of the head. Periodically he had to rush offstage to find the next guest – some of the continuity bordered on the unpardonable. Musically, though, it held together just fine.
The first half started with Joseph’s authoritative reading of a Sun Ra poem and the orchestra’s brass playing their socks off while filing through the audience. It then twinned Ra’s early years – bebop, ballroom swing and blasts of free jazz – with the evolution of reggae from New Orleans through ska. The Ra and reggae covers were well conceived – Alcyona Mick captured Ra’s keyboard oddities while Cornell Campbell’s lover’s rock falsetto stood out – but New Orleans blues proved a step too far. Highlight was flautist Finn Peters getting inside the haunting melody of Yusef Lateef’s “Like It Is”.
The second half concentrated on the 1980s and again dealt Ra and reggae in equal measure. A slow-burning early solo on “Discipline 27” from alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey signalled intent, MC Supa Four toasted on a theme of world peace and Dammers’ “Ghost Town” was poetically rearranged. “Nuclear War” was the highlight and the “Space Is the Place” finale, featuring a guest young people’s marching band, was spectacular. They led the orchestra offstage and filed through the audience, playing at full tilt. The whole shebang continued in the bar, and could be heard throbbing in the distance while Joseph recited a final poem over Dammers’ electronica. Ra’s spirit seemed finally unleashed.
Dammers’ Ra/reggae combo works a treat, but with less inhibition and a bit of tighten-and-trim it really would be special.