Written by Elizabeth Strasser-Nicol
With my wrist stamped like I’m owned by the venue, I’m ready for Smoove and Turrell. I walk into The Jazz Cafe to A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Check the Rhime’, as red and blue lights glide across the wooden floors. Biz Markie’s ‘Nobody Beats the Biz’ follows (thank you, Shazam), as the chill of the aircon matches the vibe on display.
It’s always a good sign when a venue starts with great music from the DJ. Here that DJ is Danny, who the band later gives a shout out to on stage and who I bothered in his brick-wall booth for a setlist, since I arrived a Smoove and Turrell virgin, fresh and green.
I hit cowards-corner and linger a bit by the walls to get a sense of the place. Everyone has the same idea, so my hiding place is now like Speakers Corner with people shouting words at each other, politely.
Slowly, they dissipate.
The room moves from school disco to amphitheatre, as people heave into a semi circle in front of the stage, no one brave or drunk enough to get up close.
There is nothing yet to see, other than an array of untouched instruments. A pair of congas, a drumset, some bongos, two Stratocasters, two keyboards and a sky blue Telecaster bass, all grace the stage. It’s exciting to see the instruments in the spotlight and to wonder what sound the musicians might make with them. I have enough time to consider what I might be about to hear.
Like the instruments, the crowd is a mix of everything. Families, singletons, young couples; all ages, all kinds. I give up on pondering what I might be about to hear.
Some sit silently in the balcony as the people underneath get louder. Italian voices are thrown across the room, slightly muffled by the bellowing sounds of my favourite artist, No Result.
Four men dressed like scientists at a rave, rock up to the stage. The lead singer in a 90s leopard jacket jumps up and down, getting into character and giving a roar into the mic. They are Vanderbilt, the support act from Sunderland and murderers of my fragile ears. The gravel-voice goes soft as what looks like a northern hard-nut turns out to have the sleekest voice ever set to muted clavichords. Sounding like Metronomy crossed with Simply Red, they inspire a muted foot-shuffle from me, not expecting to have been moved so soon.
By 8:40, Vanderbilt have vanished and everyone is still standing around in a semi circle, like the stage has got the lurgies.
A mop-haired Liam-Gallagher-looking fellow swaggers through the crowd in a white and blue tie-dyed jacket, then lumbers onto the stage. I have never seen this man before but everyone wants to take their picture with him, like he brought Carnaby Street to Camden. He is an event all by himself.
Another man I recognise from an earlier conversation, joins him.
Me: Sorry, I don’t know the band. Do you have a setlist for them?
Bloke: I’ll send it to you. What’s your name?
Bloke: I’m Smoove, nice to meet you.
Smoove mans the congas then signals for the DJ to stop.
A Hammond organ is met with a bass that I can feel, heavy in my chest. I forgot how intense it can be at a live gig, having been locked inside for two years, only listening to music on my headphones. As I think I might pass out, lead singer Turrell sings ‘I can’t give you up’, in the smoothest voice I have ever heard and the crowd comes to life.
When the funk guitar and climbing bass of ‘Do It’ both get going, the inhibitions of the crowd have gone and the magic Pagan semi-circle at the front has been banished under their heaving bodies.
Turrell talks to the crowd: ‘So nice to be back in London Town after… 4 years?’ ‘Two!’ shout back the crowd. They’re keeping score.
The unexpected sound of tabla makes for an amazing intro and the band hits full power. The Gallagher lad, who turns out to be the keyboard player – introduced later as Michael Alan Porter, is giving me life. He’s hanging off the balcony, standing on his stool and pouting for England – all self-aware and having fun with it. The Gods controlling the lighting are throwing out reds and purples to stress the emotional pressure. E.P. is the abbreviated title of the song and it’s my favourite of the night. This is how great live music can be; everyone playing their part, immersed in the moment.
Turrell’s slick hand-flick gestures neatly decorate the atmosphere as he sings ‘Why do I do what I do?’ When he’s done, he asserts: ‘I know the answer to that question – this!’ The band is in good spirits, as is the crowd, awashed in blue, hands held high to meet the ceiling. They are raucous and loving every minute of it and the freedom that this night represents.
Throughout, Turrell starts riffing on Freddie Mercury vocals with a call and response from the audience. It’s a joke I have clearly missed but it’s nevertheless entertaining. It’s not the only thing that passes me by. Later on, a song apparently ends early and Turrell berates Michael for finishing on the keys too soon – ‘he fucks it up at the end by pressing the button… King dick on the keys there’. He gets a punch on the arm as punishment. It was a song about Turrell’s daughter.
The light strobes crawl upon the audience like early dawn and in comes Elgin Towers, a brooding song that starts off like 808 State’s ‘Pacific State’. There’s a fair nod to the late 80s and early 90s throughout. Later on down the line, Smoove shouts ‘It’s 1989!’ which the crowd goes wild for. I swear I heard a cowbell.
Every band member gets their moment in the spotlight, all announced by Smoove. Now it’s the turn of the drummer: ‘Oscar Cassidy has been in my life since he was 19 years old!’ and he canes it on the drums.
Guitarist Lloyd Wright follows suit, losing himself in his beautiful guitar playing, reaching to the heavens.
‘See if you can recognise this’ challenges Turrell, as bassist, Neil Harland plays what sounds like Magazine’s ‘The Light Pours Out of Me’. The audience cheers. They recognise it and I recognise that I need to brush up on my Smoove and Turrell.
The band takes us to instrumental heaven, as Smoove shakes what looks like dynamite in the dark but what sounds like maracas.
The scent of menthol and smoke float through the air as the bloke next to me blows out my eardrums, screaming at the band. His girlfriend soon follows, shouting ‘Are we competing?’ It fucking feels like it.
Turrell pays tribute to The Jazz Cafe as, ‘One of the greatest institutions in this country is this venue right here’ and I can’t disagree.
For the final song, the band drops the music for the crowd to sing instead. They know every word and there is nowhere else they would rather be.
Turrell takes his hat off and gives a royal curtsy before the goodnight.
The band have an encore that they never really left the stage for: ‘I don’t want to do that going off the stage thing – this is really our last song,’ says Turrell. They throw themselves into The Spencer Davis Group’s ‘I’m a Man’ and it’s a fantastic ending to a wicked evening.
With no hearing in my left ear and my legs aching from the only exercise I’ve done in two years, I walk out of The Jazz Cafe like John Wayne and straight into the Camden night.