[The Mail On Sunday, 2001]
London Hammersmith Apollo
VARIOUS OLD DEAD FELLERS
A CENTURY OF BLUES
“ALWAYS keep a-hold of Nurse,” Hilaire Belloc famously counselled, “for fear of finding something worse.” A point well taken by the audience which has dutifully filed into the Apollo, crocodile-style, two by two. You know where you are with Gabrielle. Modern R&B is populated by the uncanny likes of Missy Elliot, who do strange and frightening new things. Cosy, reliable Gabrielle is not just Nurse, she's Matron.
Musically, Gabrielle works in the comforting tradition of Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross, although she rarely achieves their thrilling level of delicacy and finesse. She understands melody and understatement, certainly. But you can only take understatement so far before you stop making any kind of statement at all.
Gabrielle sings about sunshine a lot. She is so sunnily middle-of-the road you could use her to illuminate a traffic island. If you like nice, you'll like Gabrielle. She is niceness personified, making nice soul music for all these nice couples. It's not unpleasant, just unexciting. For me, at least. Everybody else seems enraptured. I feel as if I've fallen asleep in the bath.
Her comeback hit, Rise, is pretty enough, but then she segues into an ill-advised version of Knockin' On Heaven's Door which makes it sound as if she's dropped round at God's place for a cuppa.
Things get going a bit when, during a medley of Sly Stone and Jacksons covers, Gabrielle performs a combination duck walk/high kick across the front of the stage. Considering the snug fit of the lady's trews, this is edge-of the-seat stuff. You can only applaud her bravura. If the whole show had been conducted with that much gusto, it might have been a fair night out. As it is, only the immediate unbanning of amphetamines could perk me up by the end of it.
Another compelling argument for the legalisation of drugs is also one of the least frequently invoked: that it will stop drugs bores banging on about it. The offence of smoking marijuana, for instance, should be abolished altogether, and replaced by the offence of discussing it.
Over the years we have been blathered and bleated at by hemp loving luminaries ranging from Woody Harrelson to Ali G, who has lately been adopted as a figurehead by the Free The Weed mob, despite the fact that he doesn't actually exist. Still, to people for whom the concept of reality is nebulous at best, this is hardly a blowback. Drawback, I mean.
Waccy baccy has had no more assiduous champions than the Californian rap outfit Cypress Hill, who have now reached their sixth album, Stoned Raiders, without ever changing the subject.
The good thing about Cypress Hill is that you don't have to listen to the words, which are a load of old Rizlas anyway. Their records sound great and always have done. Producer Muggs ranks among the most consistently inventive music makers in the genre. His bandmates' high pitched Chicano drawls have a cartoonish quality which becomes deliciously sinister when set against Muggs's gothic hip hop backing.
Stoned Raiders, which fluently encompasses the current rap-metal sound without succumbing to its clichés, is well up to their customary standards. Guest slots are filled by such narcotic-friendly notables as Redman, Method Man, Kurupt and Kokane, the last having named himself after a compound which does wonders for your self confidence but little for your spelling.
Cypress Hill could go on indefinitely (dopers generally do.) Quite possibly they'll still be performing as grizzled ancients, on the lines of the men whose work fills A Century Of Blues. Men like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim and Freddie King, who persevered so long into their dotage that we forgot that they were ever young.
Despite its title, this three-CD box set is no authoritative blues history. It features not a single woman, and nothing recorded before 1939 - no sign of crucial early figures Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy and Deaf Plumcake Tapperwill (who, to be fair, was probably left off because I made him up.) Instead, this haphazard collection skews a little too much towards the British Blues Boom (Manfred Mann's Smokestack Lightning is no substitute for Howlin' Wolf's.) Plus there are no sleevenotes, and the cover bears an unnerving resemblance to that of Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms.
That's what's wrong with it. What's right with it is that there is still a glut of wonderful recordings on here. Alongside the big names are featured lesser-known figures such as boogie-woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis, and underrated titans Son House and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. Even better, at a tenner a go, it scores pretty high on the Desperate Last-Minute Present Hunt scale. Nothing says "Christmas" quite like the strains of Floyd Dixon's Tired, Broke And Busted echoing around the tinsel.
All material on this site is copyrighted © to David Bennun and may not be reprinted or reused without permission. I ain't goin' out like that.