Sly & Robbie with Nils Petter Molvaer create blissful ‘Nordub’ at Barbican

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A meeting of the world’s greatest rhythm section, two progressive soloists and a producer raises the prospect of a night of instrumental groove glory. Yet in a dramatic turn of events, a quite magical voice is revealed. Without warning bass guitarist Robbie Shakespeare, telepathic ally of drummer Sly Dunbar, the two of them forming Jamaica’s legendary ‘riddim twins’, steps up to the mic and sings. He initially has an unassuming, almost tentative presence, whispering the choruses of ‘When You're Hot You're Hot’, but as the night unfolds he grows into the role of the band’s singer, delivering some of the sweetened melancholy that defines many of the great vocalists who he and Sly have backed – think Dennis Brown or Gregory Isaacs – and by the time he is left on stage to perform a solo rendition of the heartbreak anthem ‘No, No, No’, he is positively rocking. Swaying heartily on the edge of the stage, Robbie has a natural showmanship and easy rapport with the audience that imbues this performance with a communicative charge that is a sure-fire antidote to the austerity, which sometimes frames the heads down no smiles stance of ‘players of instruments’.

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Yet this gig is also just that. Sly & Robbie give a consummate display of the finer points of the reggae aesthetic to whose development they have contributed immeasurably over the past four decades, with the blend of deep, cottony, often stripped to the bone basslines and offbeat rimshots providing a rock solid foundation for trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and guitarist Eivind Aarset, two of Norway’s most significant musical exports of the late 1990s, on which build.

Sometimes they lay nonchalantly in the groove, with the former doubling Robbie’s minimalist licks. Sometimes they sprinkle effects and audio treatments, with the latter creating a series of spooky post-industrial soundscapes that resonate vividly with the stream of primeval noise crafted by the fifth member of the ensemble, Finnish producer-engineer Vladislav Delay.

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There are a few longueurs, though, especially when Molvaer comes perilously close to soporific phrases that blunt the relentlessly hard edge of Sly’s snare drum, and the trumpeter’s decision to distort his own singing into the horn is more kitsch than creative. There’s also a simply bizarre version of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, where Robbie's vocal doesn’t quite muster the requisite cynicism and defiance of the lyric.  

However, when everybody does lock in to the ‘one’ the resulting rhythmic juggernaut is hard to resist, making the all too important point that the European ‘Nu jazz’ of the millennium, of which the likes of Molvaer and Aarset where nominal figureheads, owes a debt to the black science of both dub production techniques and playing. When Sly slips into triple-time hi-hat hisses or creates a shimmering live echo effect by stretching his rolls on the toms, the work of his younger partners sounds entirely apposite. Having said that, the highlight of the evening, Rasta elegy ‘Satta Massagana’, which Robbie sings with the natural mystic of a Johnny Clarke, is a reminder that the two Jamaican maestros have a legacy that is also pure ‘dread inna Babylon’.  

– Kevin Le Gendre  

– Photos by Roger Thomas