ROOTS MANUVA + Airborn Audio @ Cabaret La Tulipe

By Darcy - 05/06/05

Manuva To Montreal: “Splendid!”

We’re gonna hafta make an implicit covenant here before you read the following musings regarding the Roots Manuva show that went down at Cabaret La Tulipe on May 6th 2005: I promise to try and recall to my fullest capability the highs and lows of the show without exaggerating or making things up. I accept full responsibility for the fact that I should have written this a month ago. In light of this, I beg of the reader to consider that since Manuva hadn’t been to Montreal since the late nineties, the author may have been in party-mode that night and set aside a few journalistic practices, such as note-taking and undivided attention-paying.

In fairness, any ability on anyone’s part to truly and keenly observe the show was hindered by the fact that stage lighting made it really difficult to see black dudes perform. This would be the case all night. Openers Airborn Audio (two-thirds of the defunct Anti-Pop Consortium) gave a well-received performance, and from what I heard, the sound was correct. Tons of people were on the floor to see them, but then again there’s not much other place to go aside from a few tables and the upstairs balcony. Still, most appeared to be fans. Anti-Pop is just one of those groups I never got into, and though I’ve heard good things about Airborn Audio and enjoyed music I’ve heard from them, I honestly could not offer a balanced critique of their set. People had their hands up, cheered like crazy and sang along. All the while, I could see only two LEDs bobbing around on the stage, and two figures in the shadows behind them. Tulipe is a non-smoking venue, but the sweaty mist in the air of the humid room also hindered stage visibility. Hoping the lighting would improve for the headliner, I decided to move to the balcony to see if it might make a difference.

Surprisingly, seating was still abundantly available upstairs. Comfortable in my old stadium-style pull-down chair, I decided to break the non-smoking rule with something at least halfway worthwhile getting tossed out for. As the house lights dimmed again, the stinky air had an electric quality, which cooked up the odour of anticipation. Two darkened figures emerged, one setting up behind the DJ booth, retreating behind to the back-left of the stage behind a nondescript apparatus (which turned out to be a sysnthesizer). A brief intro-jam segued to the opening melody of “Mind 2 Motion”, the first song from Manuva’s latest LP, Awfully Deep (Big Dada/Banana Klan). A third figure appeared before the mic and grabbed it. “You look splendid, Montreal!” boomed a deep British baritone. That golden voice could only belong to one man, Mr. Rodney Smith, the man behind the dials, dubplates and discourse of Roots Manuva.

“Bashment Boogie” and “Juggle Tings Proper” were among the classic joints that came early in the set. More than half of the roughly 80-minute show consisted of new material, which suited me fine as I had been bumping it non-stop for about two weeks in the living room. “Chin high, pumped chest, we step right to it/Choice is, there ain’t no choice but to pursue it,” Smith raps on the chorus “Chin High”, an upbeat jam that stands out both on the record and in concert as a perfect example of one tradition that inspires Roots Manuva’s reggae-dub-fuelled hip hop: a message of humanity’s strength in the face of troubling times. In the spirit of many great reggae artists, the depraved depths of society are cross-examined by those who seek to know ‘da real situation, and Manuva helps give voice to the voiceless by asking for painful truths over uplifiting melodies.

Manuva is also known his for darker, downtempo excursions, which in this set included last year’s indie single “A Haunting” (which echoes of desolation over a slow-paced upstroke, à la Specials’ “Ghosttown”), and crowd favorite “Movements,” the first track from his debut LP Brand New Second Hand, the title of which pays hommage to Peter Tosh). I’ll add here that the lighting remained fitting, with the exception of the occasional green or blue light that allowed me to see at least some of the physical features of the performers. Most of the time, a blinding white light from behind relegated them to dancing shadows. The effect was fairly interesting, but I’m trying to figure out if that’s the club lighting or part of the show. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The soundsystem stood up to the bass-heavy beats and the dusty, dirty space synth, which is a miracle considering that some sound guys can’t get it right with two turntables and a microphone. A synth/drum n’bass face-off tested the decibel limit and speaker capacity, so much so that Roots made a “Public Healt’ Announcement” before the short showcase. “Bass levels which are about to emanate from up ’ere may cause certain listeners to shit themselves.

The self-deprecating “Too Cold” had many in the crowd excitedly agreeing that “Sometime (we) hate (our) selves/ Sometime (we) love (our) selves!”. Manuva and his stage mates agreed several times that Montreal seemed to be “getting along splendid,” but other than a few quick pauses between songs, the performers laced us with tight delivery and energetic movement, the only shortcoming being that after all these years, we perhaps could have endured a longer set. When they returned to the stage for a quick encore, the DJ opened with eight bars of the party-jam “Hol’ It Up”, but quickly stopped as Manuva grinned and counted time to “Witness” –- which, I admit, had to be busted out at some point. Airborne Audio returned to the stage for a group freestyle jam dubbed “Airborne Manuva”, wherein Smith gave a nod to his American counterparts by rhyming over old Gangstarr and A Tribe Called Quest beats.

Alas, a second separate act on the roster at La Tulipe that night – the Has’ben Wanabes (no fucking jokes, I guarantee) – had an all important 11:30 curtain call, and so Manuva and crew gave a bow and a “Cheerio!” ’round 11:10 PM. All in all, if memory serves, it was a beautiful spring night that couldn’t have been any better, unless maybe if Common hadn’t have been playing at the Metropolis simultaneously. The scheduling conflict made the decision difficult for fans of the true shit, but Common’ll be back, especially given the growing success of his newly released album. But I digress. Next time, hopefully we’ll get to see the Manuvadelics band backing Smith. Even if it takes another half-decade, I’d book my ticket in advance.

[The Ear Exam is currently on hiatus, but will return with a couple of surprises soon.]