“I can see clearly now the rain is gone…gone are the dark clouds that had me blind it’s gonna be a bright, sunshiny day”
I DOUBT Johnny Nash was only thinking about the weather when he wrote the above, but counting the days down to spring they, and the time I saw Jimmy Cliff sing them live during a miserable summer in Cardiff, come to mind.
As the dark clouds of January and February burn away my spring optimism is the promise of live music, getting underway right on cue this Sunday, March 1 with a live show from Maxi Priest on the first day of the season which is also Dydd Gwyl Dewi (Saint David’s Day).
The British reggae star is appearing with a full live band on Sunday at DC in St Mary Street, Cardiff. Other upcoming shows in Cardiff to look forward to and get you through these last days of winter include rapper Akala at Clwb Ifor Bach, Womanby Street on Friday, April 24 and on May 16 arguably the hottest rapper in the world right now, J Cole at the Motorpoint Arena. He will be joined by Pusha T at what was the Cardiff International Arena. One of music’s true originals, in every sense of the word, Lee Scratch Perry is also returning to Cardiff on Sunday, April 5. He will be playing a venue I’ve never visited before Portland House, a banking hall in Bute Street, Butetown aka Tiger Bay.
All the excitement has got me thinking about the best gigs I’ve been to and hitting on the idea of listing my top 10 gigs of all time. What makes a great gig? Artist and repertoire obviously. Venue can often be crucial. Price can be a factor and for many the most important thing is a good time with your mates. But really you shouldn’t need to spend up to 30 something quid on tickets for an overpaid performer and through the nose for drinks in plastic ‘glasses’ to hang with your crew. On the downside friends may chat all the way through a show and cause you to miss support acts.
Having given a bit of consideration to the important elements of a live show I thought why do all the work of shortlisting the shortlist, so here’s my unnumbered ‘top 10’ gigs of all time.
Kanye West @ Cardiff International Arena, February 2006 and November 2007
‘Mr West is in the building’. There aren’t many US hip hop acts that perform UK arena tours, Yeezy sells them out. The sort of UK venues that usually host visiting US rap stars couldn’t hold Mr West who visited Cardiff with a relatively simple stage show in ’06 and returned some 18 months later with extravagant spaceship themed set and an emotional performance just weeks after the death of his mother. Shout to Common filling a support slot in ’07 too.
Jay Z @ Cardiff International Arena, July 2008
support Mark Ronson
Does hip hop have a bigger star than Jay Z? Only possibly Kanye, but the CIA wasn’t quite full for one half of the world’s A list couple, with Beyonce apparently at the side of the stage throughout. Jigga Man rocked up on stage almost fresh from his headline grabbing appearance at Glastonbury. He basically performed the same set in the arena as he had done for the soap dodgers, minus the Wonderwall cover. At the end of the set Jay was calling out faces from the crowd, and genuinely seemed grateful to those who’d come out.
Support came from Mark Ronson who conducted a soul revue style show, featuring Rhymefest and a host of UK MCs who rushed the stage for the 12″ reggae remix of ‘Valerie’, the hit Ronson produced for Amy Winehouse.
Nas @ Bristol Academy, March 2005
It ain’t hard to tell, I’m a big hip hop head and at the time Nas was probably the biggest, contemporary name I’d seen live. He tore through his classic hits, left the stage, came back and performed for nearly another hour and called out R Kelly over certain allegations that have long plagued his one time collaborator. I also saw Nas at Cardiff Students Union in May 2007 but for me that show didn’t live up to the first time in Bristol.
Akala @ The Moon Club, Cardiff, December 2013
Where were you when you heard Nelson Mandela died? Well sometime after 9pm on December 5, 20013 I was in the crowd at the packed Moon Club when support act Skunkadelic paused and announced the sad news. Politically charged, lyrically dexterous Akala, who like Madiba doesn’t take a backward step, seemed like the right act to follow. Akala’s performances are as charged as his politics.
Jeru The Damaja @ Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff, October 2000
Named as one of Kool Mo Dee’s 50 greatest MCs there was genuine surprise when it was announced a true stalwart of 90s era New York hip hop would be playing a Friday night at the ‘Welsh club’. Not as surprised as I was the following morning when he and his DJ turned up at the Pizza Hut where I worked and ordered a takeaway. No lie. Jeru asked ‘Did you enjoy the show last night?’ Yes.
Roots Manuva @ Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff, September 2001
The Welsh club is the perfect venue, a cordoned off bar at the back of the room and a stage at the front. In this period a host of UK hip hop acts and some US ones too passed through the ‘Hustler Showcase’ nights but Roots was one of the most exciting acts in UK music at the time. ‘Witness the Fitness,’ thank you very much.
Jungle Brothers @ The Globe, Cardiff, September 2014
Golden era hip hop and nice guys too. You can read my full review here. I’ve also seen Native Tongues collaborators De La Soul live in Bristol (2009) but few shows had the energy of the Jungle Brothers. Not actually a live show, but one of my favourite nights was Maseo from De La DJing at the Welsh club (December, 2001) and taking the mic for his verses from ‘A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays”.’
Incognito @ Cardiff Students’ Union, October 1996
support Courtney Pine
Already representing the UK soul and jazz funk scene for more than 15 years, Incognito had probably passed their peak by 1996 but still drew a large crowd to the Great Hall. While Incognito stuck to what they are good at so did Pine, the saxophonist’s innovative show featured a DJ, UK hip hop legend Pogo, and a computer programmer. As usual Pine left the stage to play while weaving through the crowd. This was also one of the first gigs I reviewed for the Big Issue Cymru and I interviewed Pine for the magazine back stage too.
Buju Banton @ The Forum, Cardiff, May 2001
Another gig I know the exact date of, Monday, May 14 2001. I know this as two days earlier Liverpool had beat Arsenal in the first ever FA Cup Final to be played at the nearby Millennium Stadium. A premier reggae act on a Monday night, Buju jumped from the stage and ran across the dancefloor, shaking his locks. From the stage Buju expressed his amazement that weed was still illegal but some European countries were reportedly proposing the legalisation of gay marriage. It sounded a bit unlikely, at least in the UK, at the time. Now two men can do just that but could still find themselves joining Buju – currently serving a 10 year stretch in a Florida prison – should they celebrate with a spliff.
While I know the date, I could be wrong about the name of the venue. The giant club, which held around 1,000 people under Queen Street, about where HMV is now, changed its name quite a bit from the Astoria to Vision 2K to the Forum.
I also saw the royal family of reggae Morgan Heritage at the Forum, in such a poorly attended event it was almost like a private show. My brother and our crew had been booked as DJ support but despite a professional performance from the family it was a disappointing and very poorly promoted Saturday night. Again I can remember the exact date, October 4, 2003 as it was my birthday.
Warrior King, Luciano and Cocoa Tea @ The Forum, Cardiff, March 2003
It’s not often you see such a stellar reggae line up on stage in Cardiff. Warrior King, riding the success of his recently released debut LP ‘Virtuous Woman’, roots favourite Luciano and a true great, Cocoa Tea. They performed with a full band in that order. On a Saturday night during the Iraq War Luciano addressed the military term ‘friendly fire’ with true righteousness, ‘They call it friendly fire, it’s frenzied fire’.
Culture with Kenyatta Hill @ The Globe, Cardiff, August 2014
This, as I said at the time here, was one of the best gigs I’ve seen so it has to make the ‘top 10’. A tip to promoters book the Rasites as support. This was the second time I’d seen the Londoners on support duty at the Globe. In 2010 they played their own set before accompanying the Mighty Diamonds. Rasites were also the backing band for the Abyssinians when they played Bogiez Rock Bar (Cardiff, May 2013).
Beres Hammond @ Bristol Academy, September 2004
It’s hard to pick my top Beres gig, but ’04 was my first. In 2009 the most soulful voice in reggae returned to the Academy with Maxi Priest. However I was a bit disappointed as neither joined the other on stage to sing their hit collab, ‘How Can We Ease the Pain?’. I kept looking towards the stage door expecting one of them to enter.
That’s not my most disappointing Beres story though. In 2011 I traveled with my brother to see Beres and Tarrus Riley in Birmingham, only for the clutch on my car to give way just minutes from our hotel. Waiting for a breakdown mechanic stretched those minutes out more than an hour and we reached the venue in time to see Beres, again. I still haven’t seen Tarrus perform.
Omar @ The Big Weekend, Cardiff City Hall lawn, August 1997
In austerity Britain there’s nothing like this, a free festival organised by the city council staged over three days and featuring some genuine big name and cutting edge acts. Now the council can barely afford to collect the bins the Big Weekend is just a memory and last took place in August 2011.
I’ve seen some amazing performers at the Big Weekend, including Gill Scott Heron (1996), the Brand New Heavies (2004) and UK hip hop act Urban Species who performed on a sweltering Sunday headlined by The Man, Omar.
I’d interviewed Omar backstage in the afternoon for the Big Issue Cymru before joining thousands of others squeezed on the lawn in-front of the Edwardian City Hall as Omar commanded the stage that night. Afterwards me, my brother and our friend were chatting everything from music to politics with Urban Species frontman Mintos.
Omar was back in Cardiff in October 2000 for a BBC Radio 1 event with Shaun Escoffery for a live broadcast of Trever Nelson’s Sunday night ‘Rhythm Nation’ show. I remember I had to phone in during the previous week’s radio show to get the free tickets for the broadcast at Bar 38 in ‘Cardiff Bay’. The BBC still has a run down of that night on its website here. The show was part of a week of events ‘Radio 1 Live in Cardiff’ which brought lots of acts to the city, including hometown MC, Me One.
A year earlier I’d also attended Trevor’s broadcast from Radio 1 Sound City in Liverpool that featured Hill St Soul.
Jimmy Cliff @ The Big Weekend, Cardiff City Hall lawn, August 2007
A genuine superstar on the Big Weekend stage. Dressed in bright orange, Jimmy ran through all his hits, or as most people know them ‘my favourite song’. He was the Saturday night headliner on what I think was one of the few dry weekends that year.
The Big Weekend had one of its strongest line ups in 2007, the previous evening Soul II Soul including Caron Wheeler, headlined. I somehow missed Pee Wee Ellis who opened the festival but did arrive in time for UK singer Bobby Kray who was accompanied by his producer, legendary UK reggae figure Dennis Bovell.
You can see a highlights video, with French captions, of Jimmy’s hour and a half Big Weekend gig, that I found on You Tube here.
I’m looking forward to adding more to my personal ‘top 10’ gigs over the coming months and posting more reviews on this blog.