Body poppin, funk choppin, ska skankin – Toots and the Maytals bring the cosmic reggae grooves to Liverpool, Getintothis’ Sean Bradbury dons his multi-coloured face paint.
We, The Undersigned performing at Liverpool’s O2 Academy
Is supporting Toots and the Maytals a daunting prospect for an up-and-coming ska funk troupe? Not if you happen to be We, the Undersigned.
The Liverpool-based ensemble enjoy every moment of their self-styled Stankh set and the feeling is mutual in the audience. Dedicated fans are on the front rails bopping to every beat and singing every word, but more and more people are drawn closer by the raw power and sheer joy of their music.
Their sound, helpfully described from on stage as “cosmic funk reggae”, veers across the whole spectrum, always retaining a tight, danceable groove.
They are both an audio and visual treat – a colourful swarm of facepaint, sheepskin and Indian headgear – as shown best on their final track, when the band’s blistering horns and funk chops get bodies rocking while filthy flute lines from a man dressed as Sherlock Holmes get heads nodding.
We, The Undersigned unleash the chops at Liverpool’s O2 Academy
Next up Chantelle Ernandez, backing singer for the Maytals and emerging reggae songstress in her own right, takes to the mic and helps the islanders get loose with a few tunes including a lilting, luscious rendition of The First Cut Is The Deepest. Give it up Cat Stevens, Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow – when a reggae cover is done this well, it sounds like nothing else but the natural home for the words.
Then: ‘Are you ready for the Pressure Drop man? The man who gave us the word reggae?‘ Enter Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert. He bounces on stage and begins, fittingly, with I’ll Never Grow Old – the opening track from the Maytals’ debut 1964 record of the same name.
The song is a perfect vocal warm up and he hits the high notes straight away. The Maytals too are tight and effortlessly cool from the word go; bassist lurking in the unlit background, lazily swaying and only to be seen on the offbeat; guitarist’s fingers dancing down the fretboard of a Jamaican flag Strat and Toots himself, beaming smile, trademark shades, bandana and sleeveless studded leather jacket.
The Maytals’ Chantelle Ernandez live at the O2 Academy
A lively start, but Toots then proceeds to strum his way through a few non-eventful numbers, rooted to the spot with acoustic guitar in hand. Just when everything is in danger of feeling a little flat, he puts down his instrument, walks up to the cusp of the crowd and launches into Pressure Drop; big sigh of relief and first signs of a major skank spreading round the room as the band spring back into life. Louie Louie soon follows, shifting through the gears to and speeding up to send the place wild.
The Maytals are fully in control now, slowing things down with the laidback groove of Bam Bam before exploding into Funky Kingston with some Nirvana-style riffing and morphing the 1973 classic into a 10-minute Blues Brother jam.
Apart from the sadly missing Take Me Home, Country Roads it is all there – the irresistible ebb and flow of Pomps and Pride, the gospel harmonies of Sweet and Dandy, and the total triple time madness of Monkey Man.
Toots gives it some welly at the O2 Academy
Toots encores and professes his innocence with a fantastic 54-46 (That’s My Number) – toying with the crowd, ‘Give it to me….10 times!‘ – before signing off with a long goodbye of pure showmanship as the band wig out with a jam of Amen breaks, soulful keys and dirty lead guitar behind him.
All told it’s an impressive 90 minutes of reggae classics, punctuated by a few bouts of filler as the band trot out two-step instrumentals while Toots takes some well-earned breathers, that leaves everyone present smiling and skanking off into the night.
The crowd lap up Toots and The Maytals at the O2 Academy
Pictures by Matt Thomas.