Live Music + Gig Reviews

United Underground @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

18 July 2009

You’d expect, after the field-based washouts of recent weeks, that a music festival held snugly within the concrete edifice of the South Bank Centre would be the last place on earth to be adversely affected by the British summer.

You’d be wrong, however. The brand-new, and wonderfully cost-efficient festival (tickets for an entire evening of music were a fiver – beat that, Lovebox Weekender) had, in all faith, promised a rooftop concert overlooking the Thames as the sun went down.

Watching some of the UK’s hippest acts playing against a terribly evocative Waterloo sunset sounded too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was. We arrived in time for Theoretical Girl‘s set only to find three soundmen attempting to wrap a bin bag around some damp speakers on a desolate paving slab. They’d forgotten to put a roof on the stage.

Thus ensued an hour-and-a-half wait while said sound men carted all the stuff off the roof and into the much drier Purcell Room. While we waited, we took the opportunity to have a look around the stages and charity stalls set up in the foyer, which gave an idea of the good natured, but a mite confused principals behind the festival. In between signing up for Amnesty international and creating a real-time fanzine about youth engagement in music, you could stop and lurk near the back of a deafening dance set by Urban Nerds or Dirty Canvas, set up just inches away from a group campaigning against the use of loud music to torture terror suspects. Without wanting to do a disservice to Reprieve’s superb Zero Db campaign, the irony was a little inescapable.

Mutiny amongst the crowd was averted – and only just – by the appearance of organiser Riz Ahmed – actor, rapper, Oxbridge graduate, activist and downright handsome fellow, who turned on the charm, and the electricity, in the Purcell Room for the much delayed start to the main acts. Theoretical Girl has been knocking around for some time, and we’d almost given up hope of seeing her turn in an album in the wake of numerous folk-hipster girls like Blue Roses jump the queue. But this was a short and sweet solo set delivered from behind a large stack of sheet music that promised much ahead of that release, finally due later this summer. Less promising, unfortunately, was Jaime Woon, whose solo guitar renditions of a couple of funk/soul numbers were pleasant, if eminently forgettable. A large contingent of girls seemed there more for Woon himself, and every song was greeting by a high-pitched scream that barreled and rolled around the hall.

Interspersing the acts were speakers, usually as a Q&A with Riz Ahmed. Some, like filmmaker Peter Kosminsky and Plane Stupid were inspiring, some, like filmmaker Noel Clarke, seemed out of their depth when asked about youth engagement, falling back into self-aggrandizing and sloganeering (and, in Clarke’s case, taking a pop at film director Ken Loach for not being relevant to young people – perhaps a case of pots and kettles). Ahmed remained the constant driving force throughout, his energy and obvious passion for the vague but noble cause of getting more kids to, like, do stuff, was heartwarming and infectious.

Heartwarming also summed up Sam Duckworth’s Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly set – limited, like everyone else on the bill, to 15 minutes, but his was an impassioned few songs, including hit War Of The Worlds, and his obvious musical talents now seem to be dovetailing nicely with a firebrand political streak – something to watch out for on his mooted second album. An unfortunate side-effect of the whole show running late meant that we had to miss Gabriel Prokofiev‘s ‘challenging’ ‘orchestral garage’ set, and headed back into the main hall to watch M.I.A.’s protg Afrikan Boy.

The Woolwich MC has had the kind of blooding that most grime artists recording mixtapes in their bedrooms can only dream about, appearing on M.I.A.‘s Hussel and remixing her global phenomenon Paper Planes, but he isn’t one to rest on his laurels. United Underground’s true high point, 20-year-old Olushola Ajose’s set was hugely enjoyable, leaping between the furious Afrobeat of Kunta Kinte and the hilarious, pointed social commentary of the grimey Lidl.

After his set finished with a well-received version of Paper Planes, Riz Ahmed took to the stage, shedding his Jeremy Paxman approach to audience interaction and replacing it with a couple of fiery, political songs including People Like People and Sour Times. Ahmed’s skills as a rapper are equaled by his fierce spit-on-the-eye-of-authority lyrics, and he has the rare talent of making activism not only engaging and accessible, but also very funny. While some of the worthier singers earlier struggled to get a message – any message – across to the audience, Ahmed’s playful but blunt delivery was just what this festival, and perhaps young people in the wider world, needed more of. This was a good start for United Underground – let’s hope there’s more where this came from.

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United Underground @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London