It’s hard to overstate how important Soul II Soul seemed when Keep On Movin’ was launched on an unsuspecting chart in 1989. At a time when the Top 40 was stuck in a no-imagination land of the dull MOR of Phil Collins and Simply Red and the ridiculous sugar-coated disposable pop of Stock Aitken and Waterman, it was difficult to get your head around something so pure and so beautiful.
But somehow Jazzie B’s troupe connected, and his music found its way to the forefront of everyone’s attention. Relying on the quality of its songs, their debut album Club Classics Volume One attracted massive respect and minimal criticism.
Fast forward 21 years and tonight they were closing the Somerset House Summer Series on a beautiful summer evening with sunshine-filled soul tracks. They must have a deal with the weather gods; it’s hard to imagine them soundtracking any other conditions.
The collective currently includes a small string section, the same Shovell who played with M People on percussion and a succession of female vocalists. Jazzie B himself stands at the back of the stage behind a bank of electronic machinery, coming to the front between songs to narrate his story to us. Dressed head to toe in black leather (trousers, jacket, hat) he’s like a wizened owl as he imparts his basic philosophies on life that run through all of his songs. Generally it comes down to nothing more complex that his often repeated mantra of “a happy face, a thumping bass, a loving race”, but he makes the gig a communal and human one, struggling to disguise his emotions and his pride in what he’s achieved.
The setlist starts off showcasing their back catalogue in chronological order. Original singer Rose Windross is the first vocalist on stage for their first ever single Fairplay. But she doesn’t attract anything like the welcome reserved for Caron Wheeler. Looking exactly as she did in 1989, she’s instantly recognisable with her dreadlocks still worn in the same “up” style as they ever were. Keep On Movin’ remains a beautiful and understated masterclass in danceable soul music, and Wheeler’s voice remains vulnerable and pure.
The chronology would dictate that she would stay on stage to perform the chart topper Back To Life (However Do You Want Me), but that would rob the audience of having that to look forward to, so things are shaken up a bit, and Wheeler steps aside for a few songs from some of the collective’s newer female talent.
First up we have MC Chickaboo who has updated the sound with her Alesha Dixon-like ragga style. Unfortunately it’s a style that doesn’t achieve the levels that their classics soar to, but she’s a great stage presence and helps out to great effect on the Top 5 smash Get A Life.
Charlotte Kelly also gets to lead the vocals on a couple of the tracks, including the smoochy slow jam Missing You. The collective as it is feels like a well-formed unit, but while the mid-section of the gig flows well, it also shows up the lack of depth in material that feels like filler between the showcase songs.
When Wheeler comes back for Back To Life (However Do You Want Me), that solitary Number 1, it’s a joyous moment. Older hands adopt happily nostalgic faces, but younger people react with just as much enthusiasm, demonstrating the song’s timeless nature.
Jazzie B jokes that to get Wheeler on board took four Easyjet flights, eight lawyers, six assistants and a few thousand pounds of international phonecalls. She can probably name her price. Without her, the magic is gone. But it’s Jazzie B himself who’s the star here. He changed something in music. Without his eccentric positivity and his thumping bassline, the world would have been a worse place. And that’s still not overstating it.