Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Knight Light: Beverley Knight and her Olympic torch - EXCLUSIVE PHOTO
Knight Light: Beverley Knight and her Olympic torch - EXCLUSIVE PHOTO Compere Count Prince Miller Abigail Kelly Dancers Aston Youth Group Miss Culture Jam Miss Culture Jam Dancers Dancers Dennis Seaton Musical Youth's Lead Singer Dennis Seaton Musical Youth's Lead Singer Dennis Seaton Musical Youth's Lead Singer Jaki Graham The three magnificent backing singers Jaki Graham Gold medal winning Olympian Asafa Powell & Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce Asafa Powell the Jamaican spirnt legend Asafa Powell Waving goodbye to Birmingham on the way to the Olympics: Asfa Powell Team Jamaica boss with Birmingham's Lord Mayor on stage for official presentation Reggae singer Skibu Singer-songwriter Carlton Curtis The wonderful Beverley Knight The wonderful Beverley Knight Beverley Knight and her band on stage at Symphony Hall, Birmingham The wonderful Beverley Knight Andy Hamilton's sons paying tribite to their late father

We were in the presence of greatness. 1. The venue…Birmingham’s answer to London’s Royal Albert Hall on a smaller scale. A stunning place. 2. The star-studded array of talent on stage. 3. Beverley Knight’s world class soul vocals. 4. Gold medal Olympian Asafa Powell and around 16 of his Jamaican track and field team mates and coaches.

A heady night with a real buzz of excitement in the air from the moment the doors opened. The ambitious evening was organised to celebrate Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of independence and its cultural heritage. Also to pay tribute to the amazing achievements of the Jamaican national athletes, wish them a fond farewell and good luck, as they leave their training camp at Birmingham University to head to the athlete’s village for the start of London’s Olympic games the next day.

The event attracted major media coverage, and with the prospect of Usain Bolt and his team being in attendance, it was no wonder there were so many TV film crews and press photographers around. Top of the bill, the wonderful Beverley Knight was in demand for TV interviews before the show, and showed me her very own Olympic torch for an exclusive Blues & Soul photograph.

She had run with the torch at London’s Wembley Stadium that same day, with England goalkeeping legend Gordon Banks. The singer and the 74-year-old were carrying the torch through Brent as part of day 68 of the relay. 2012 is quite a year for 39-year-old Ms Knight - she is due to marry fiancé James O’Keefe later this year.

With so many artists, musicians, dancers and dignitaries taking to the stage in just a three hour window, it was no wonder the event ran well over time. Persistent sound problems blighted a few of the spots a tad, but I should point out it was NOT in-house sound guys on the night. The venue is hailed as the very best place to hear classical music in the entire country for it’s magnificent acoustics and sound equipment, by the Guardian’s music critic. I have seen Al Green and others at Symphony Hall, and the sound quality was perfect.

Tonight not so, but the close to capacity crowd (it holds 2,162) who paid £30 a ticket plus booking fee, didn’t seem to notice. It was party night for them and a little piece of Jamaica. The Jamaican flag flew outside the venue, and there were lots of the country’s national colours around the place on stage and off.

The MC for the evening was Joe Aldred from BBC WM. Sounding uncannily like Sir Trevor McDonald, Joe introduced us first to Count Prince Miller, who took part in Jamaica’s original gala independence show in August 1962 at Kingston’s National Stadium. He worked with Bob Marley and many of the country’s musical greats. Count Prince Miller chatted about his beloved home country and left the stage, returning later to sing a song about his home-land. He introduced Internationally-acclaimed opera singer Abigail Kelly, who hails from Birmingham. You could have heard a pin drop when she sang her three numbers to a piano backing track.

Behind soprano Abigail, high above the stage was a giant screen showing stills all night - and the word Jamaica in the national colours. The phrase: “Out of many one people,” was flashed up a few times, very apt considering the amount of talent on that stage on this one special July night.

It was the turn of the all-girl Horizon Youth Choir next, who gave us just the one song, Labi Siffre’s “Something Inside So Strong,” and beautifully delivered too, That is such an emotion-filled and timeless song. Slightly older youngsters now, male and female, with the very dynamic Aston Youth Perfoming Academy and a super tight and funky band.

Miss Culture Jam is a Birmingham-based comedian who had the audience in stitches. Me and my fellow media men didn’t understand a word of her thick Jamaican patois, but she raised the roof with her set. Miss Culture Jam is in fact, Ita Gooden, poet, writer, story-teller, comedian, singer, dancer and dramatist. She is a qualified nurse and midwife, and has a BA in Business administration. She is also a qualified adult education teacher who has lectured at Birmingham City University and taught at City College Birmingham.
Colourful dance troupe Wedayah preceded the MC and a recording, announcing Birmingham’s X Factor contestants, sister duo First Laydeez..But we got only one of the pair, after a lone soprano sax player soloed out front, quite unconnected to the R&B pop to come.. No explanation as to why it was actually First Ladyeeee, singular! The audience were also not told why R&B star Jamelia was a no show either. She was in fact ill, and her doctor advised against appearing. A shame as I’d like to have seen her perform. Get better soon.

The Town Hall Gospel Choir, sang from high up behind the stage in “the Gods,” above the organ and below the giant video screen. They have worked with many big names, including High Masakela, Willard White and Ruby Turner. The MC remarking “what energy” when they finished to very loud applause.

A real blast from the past next; Birmingham’s own Musical Youth. They had a massive number one smash hit around the world in 1982,with “Pass The Dutchie,” gained two Grammy nominations and collaborated with Donna Summer. They broke up in ’85,

Interestingly, the song was based on the Mighty Diamonds' "Pass the Kouchie" - a song about cannabis – and the title had been subtly altered to feature the patois "dutchie", referring to a different type of pot: one used for cooking. It sold over four million copies, and was nominated for a Grammy. A Top 10 placing also followed in the US Billboard chart. The accompanying video made them the first black artists to be played on MTV.

They kicked off with Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come.” Dennis Seaton the original lead singer (after founding father Frederick Waite departed the band before their chart success) in fine voice. But we didn’t want to hear that, did we? We wanted THAT song, and we got it. The bass was kicking out big stylee, and it really is an infectious ditty that put a smile on everyone’s faces and had the audience singing along.

Jaki Graham was warmly greeted and delivered a strong two-song set – “I Can See Clearly Now," the Johnny Nash classic and the evergreen Detroit Spinners’ “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” to start the second half of the night.

There were tributes galore on the night; to Bob Marley, to the late Howard Aris (former JAAA president) and legendary Jamaican-British saxophonist and bandleader Andy Hamilton, the Birmingham-based jazz star who died last month at the age of 94.He had been invited to perform on this very night. His sons Mark and Graeme Hamilton joined Andy’s band The Blue Notes, to play in his memory on trumpet and sax.

The athletes had arrived in the venue about ten minutes after the show began and were escorted to their box to the right of the stage. They sat in darkness flanked by security, so no one knew if THE man was there or not. Mr Bolt had attended a Birmingham University dinner on the Monday night of that week, where a pair of his running spikes had raised £25,000 in an auction. Chris Eubank and Reggae Reggae Sauce king Levi Roots were also there. But Bolt had not shown up the afternoon before this gig, at an open training session at the Uni’ track, where around 200 of the world’s media had gathered. So would he be here tonight? My money said not a chance would his trainers want him out at 10pm, the night before they head off to London and just two nights before the Olympics opening ceremony.

It was now time for the Jamaican track and field squad, trainers, therapists, doctor and manager to take to the stage for a presentation by the Mayor, councillor John Lines and the University chief. The cheers were deafening and the entire audience got to their feet. Many rushed to the front to get their photographs, the close security guys getting twitchy.

On trouped the team, headed by Beijing gold medalist Asafa Powell and next to him Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. The only sign of Usain Bolt was his photograph on the giant video screen behind the athletes, as they listened to the Mayor’s speech and then watched a performance by three members of Ja Story. The young athlete next to Powell, copying Bolt’s famous javelin throwing stance for a split second when his image appeared on the screen, to Powell’s amusement. Bolt’s image was adorned on tee shirts and baseball caps on sale in the foyer too. But the world’s fastest man was probably tucked up in his specially made bed back at training camp in the University campus.

But the adulation from the crowd for those athletes who were present, was palpable and quite over-whelming. By the look on Powell’s face, I do not think he expected such a welcome. I forgot I should be cheering team GB for a minute and shouted my good luck message to Asafa as I took his photograph. Yep, as I said, in the presence of greatness alright. My bet is he breaks records and wins Gold in London, but I worry for Bolt with his niggling leg and back injury.

The team’s manager told the audience they were very grateful for the hospitality they had received while in Birmingham, and they were the “best people in the country.” Asafa Powell is no stranger to the city, having taken part in major athletics meetings in the city in July last year and February this year.

From sporting royalty to a veteran of old skool soul, Jimmy James, minus his Vagabonds, gave a stylish performance of his 1976 hit “Now Is The Time.” Reggae artist Skibu rather abruptly stopped the band half way through his song, as he did not seem happy with the playing.They then kicked it off again,and he had a pretty decent voice. We also got a young local female saxophonist Millicent Stephenson, who played Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,” and singer-songwriter Carlton Curtis who sang “Redemption Song,”(very well), in tribute to the late reggae legend.

Then it was time for the surprise headline act. An artist I have seen just the once, and in that very same venue. Miss Beverley Knight; opening for Al Green. As I told her before tonight’s show, the performance she gave on the Al Green Bill was simply stunning, and she really did blow me away. I said then, and that was confirmed after her set tonight; she is the UK’s ONLY ever answer to Aretha. When I told her that, she was delighted: “Awww, that is so sweet and really lovely of you to say that. Thank you. I loved that show with Al Green and I hope I can do as good a job tonight.” Well, she did more than that.

Looking very slinky in a tight yellow dress, with Bob Marley’s face looking down at her from the screen behind, Wolverhampton’s most famous daughter opened with “Is This Love,” and made that iconic reggae classic her own. Then she gave us a stunning version of “Many Rivers To Cross, “ the second Jimmy Cliff song of the night. I have to pay credit to the three superb backing vocalists in Beverley's band, who not only sang their hearts out with BK, but they also helped out with other artists on the whole night, as did the superb band.

She then sang her own song “Greatest Day” before a rousing rendition of the Jamaican national anthem. The audience lapped it up and then it was good night from Miss Knight, who really is a sensational, soul singer that this nation should be very proud of.
Her vocal acrobatics and natural abilities really are something else. Cannot wait to catch her set at this year’s V festival.

Dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah came on stage after Beverley, and more than 30 minutes after the show was supposed to end, to deliver a striking and humourus poem, which included: “Martin Luther King had a dream…I have a SCHEME…I dream of the day CURRY can be blended with SHEPHERDS PIE…of the day all POLICE are armed with DUMPLINGS…of the day BLACK PEOPLE all speak WELSH.” He closed the night with the entire Symphony Hall chanting the word “Mulitculturalism.”

The MC had announced earlier that Asafa Powell was going to perform a duet with Musical Youth’s Dennis Seaton, but that did not materialise as the athletes had already left the venue by then. I think someone was pulling his leg backstage!

The concert was hosted by the Association of Jamaican Nationals (Birmingham) UK in association with Birmingham City Council, the Jamaican High Commission and the Jamaican Athletics Administrative Association (JAAA). Proceeds from the event will be donated to the JAAA for sports development in Jamaica.

A Symphony Hall spokesperson said afterwards: “We’re thrilled to have welcomed the Jamaican Olympic athletes to a memorable celebration of Jamaica’s 50 years of independence, as well as USA Track and Field team members to a fantastic concert given by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, within the same week at Symphony Hall. Both were tremendous live music experiences, that performers and audiences will no doubt treasure for a long time.”

The chairperson of the Association of Jamaican Nationals (Birmingham) UK, Beverly Lindsay, OBE, said: “This truly is a concert of a lifetime – providing both entertainment and education as we celebrate this landmark date in Jamaica’s history.”

Yes, it was a very memorable night, and one the organisers, the venue and the performers should be proud of. The athletes clearly enjoyed themselves, and seeing some wearing headphones round their necks, and knowing Bolt and others zone out listening to reggae, hip hop, R n B and other genres just before they race, it is evident that music plays an important part in their lives. This was a fitting and uplifting send off for them. You missed a great night Mr Bolt....

* All photos: Simon Redley *

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