“We’re gonna rock it tonight. Are you ready?,” shouted the compere for Sunday night’s gig as he worked up the crowd from the Jazz Cafe’s stage. A sentiment echoed by the support act Solo Banton. And he wasn’t wrong. By the time we got to Sunday’s main attraction, it was evident that crowd was, indeed, ready.
‘Living legend’ is a term that gets bandied around a fair bit. And it was repeated several times in the build up to 9.30pm on Sunday the 30th of September. But with each announcement of the phrase the anticipation only grew in the room, the crowd only getting more vocal and excited. By the time said ‘living legend’ – Johnny Osbourne himself- set foot on stage the room was in full swing.
The gig at Jazz Cafe marked 50 years since Johnny Osbourne recorded his first track in Kingston, Jamaica. It’s been an epic journey for him since and he brought the magic with him to London. His high energy, smooth as silk singing filled the tight space. The power of his voice was something that you can’t expect when listening to tinny show audio on youtube bootlegs. The man still has it from harmonies to dub from roots to dancehall to reggaeton.
Osbourne’s mother was notoriously reluctant for him to follow music, instead hoping that her son would become an accountant. Fortunately, he decided to follow his more rebellious inclinations. One of the most popular Jamaican recording artists of all time, Osbourne’s sound is a mix of reggae, roots and dub.
Beginning his career in the 1970s it’s gone on to span the decades since with him gracing dancehalls and inspiring dance floors around the world. His classic album Truth and Rights was a huge reggae hit recorded in 1979 and garnering a re-release in 2008.
His longevity was reflected in Sunday night’s crowd. A mix of those who probably had been listening from the start through to younger generations. Proving his enduring popularity. And his stage presence echoes this. Bounding with energy, interacting with the audience and the full force of the brass and drums provided by the Uppercut Band behind him, he performed with the assurance and enthusiasm of a well versed professional (a living legend you might say).
Osbourne’s legendary status isn’t simply to do with his longevity in the industry (although that is certainly part of it) but also due to his charismatic performance style, his hit-making abilities and the incredible lyricism that his work involves. The juxtaposition of uptempo, classic reggae beats and dancehall sounds combined with the poetic words of lines such as “Love in the winter should be warmer than the summer sun”, mark him out as a musician of both his genre, his generation and many after that.
When I arrived at Camden’s Jazz Cafe earlier that evening, the temperament of the room was fairly muted. The slight sense of fatigue that can come at the end of another gloomy London week, dragged in from the drizzling streets.
By the end the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different. By 9pm the place was packed. And as he ascended the stage the whistles and shouts rose to a crescendo. What had been a half full bar was transformed into a pushing mass of people, ready to let go and sing along.
His tenacity saw him mentored by Nat King Cole and – as he points out on stage – he’s made it through the 60s, 70s, 80s right up until now. To continue being relevant in an industry that has seen significant change over all of those decades is no mean feat. And you could be forgiven for thinking that a gig like this would only draw the older, die hard fans (who were probably there at the first pressing). But no. The crowd was a diverse bunch reflecting his enduring popularity.
And his stage presence echoes this. Bounding with energy, interacting with the audience and the full force of the brass and drums provided by the Uppercut Band behind him, he performed with the assurance and enthusiasm of a well-versed professional (a living legend you might say). He certainly knows how to work a crowd.
And work it he did, they reacted right back. Dancing and singing along through such hits as “Truth & Rights” and “Murderer”. When he got to his classic “Ice Cream Love” the crowd’s singing was in full competition with the band themselves. A bumping, sweaty party that almost made you forget the grey, damp Sunday Camden evening outside. Osbourne managed to inject a sense of community into the closely packed room. His performance style is particularly infectious, tackling subjects that might initially appear sombre but in an incredibly joyous way. The crowd fed off his energy. You could hardly get to the bar for the dancing limbs.
As the gig kicked out the sense of excitement was palpable, even unable to be dampened by the London rain. He had managed to echo his own sentiment. That on a winter day, love does need and indeed can be, warmer than the summer sun. So yes, that kind of does justify the legend label, I reckon.