I didn’t really need an excuse to return to Derry, on my two previous visits not only friends but everyone I met seemed happy to see me & to share stories. It had been 10 months since the last time so a concert by Lee “Scratch” Perry, a musical legend whose influence extends beyond his chosen field of Reggae, was a perfect focal point around which another long weekend could be planned. The gig was on March 18th & apparently, I don’t keep up with these things, the day before is St Patrick’s Day, a rather big deal to the Irish. Shoot, it was a dead stone bonker that this would be hectic…so let’s go !
“Dub Revolution Part 1”, the first track on the 3 CD “Arkology”, the ultimate collection of Scratch’s work at his Black Ark studio round the back of his house in Washington Gardens, Kingston, Jamaica. In this yard he practised nothing less than alchemy to pioneer techniques that anyone with a laptop now takes for granted & to produce music of unrivalled imagination & quality. If ever I was exiled to a desert island & could only take one piece of music then it would be “Arkology”. Lee Perry’s rhythms demand that your hips sway, the conscious lyrics are from & for the heart & his Dub explorations hit upside your head. It’s a perfect package with sunshine in the grooves.If you could grow weed on that island then that would be nice but this music would still get you as high as that palm tree.
The gig in Derry was the day before Scratch’s 81st birthday so he probably wouldn’t be leaping around the stage (I know I won’t be at that age). Much of his best work was done in his producer’s booth. We were not sure what exactly we were going to get but we would be sharing oxygen with Lee Perry, a legend, a man who’s bona fides justified the tag “genius” & that was enough. So, after Ireland’s surprise victory over England at rugby (I was the only Englishman in the packed bar. That was interesting, I thought these people were my friends!) we made our way to the Nerve Centre buoyed by an anticipatory buzz.
We were not disappointed, The 4-piece band played us into the room. They were the Upsetters, not Scratch’s original house group but as his backing band they have the right. Back in 1969 the woman lucky enough to become my wife had spent the money from her Saturday job on “The Return of Django” by the Upsetters, Perry’s first UK hit, on the day I met her. It was Love at first sight…with the record, the rest came later. Reggae gigs smell a little differently nowadays with the ban on smoking, the star of the night entered to acclaim from the big crowd. He’s a small man, big coat, big hat. He looked happy to be there & we were happy to see him.
One of the things about Lee Perry’s music is that he does the simple things beautifully. Susan Cadogan’s “Hurt So Good” (1975) is perfect Pop Reggae while Max Romeo’s LP “War Ina Babylon” (1976) showed that rather than setting the controls to the heart of the Dub, powerful, passionate music just needs strong songs & a wonderful groove. Tonight we got “Chase the Devil” from that record, “Police & Thieves” came around too & man that hit the right spot. What we didn’t get was an old man trying to recreate past glories note for note & word for word. He rode the rhythm smoothly, maybe chatting whatever came to him in the moment & he never missed a beat, a rhythm rapper, comfortable on stage, showing off his bright red hair. You could hear why Lee Perry is such a great producer, he knows what is in a song & he knows how that song goes.
Of course Scratch was instrumental in the early career of Bob Marley & the Wailers. His set included his versions of “Punky Reggae Party”, “Crazy Baldhead” & “Sun is Shining” before closing with a driving encore of “Exodus”. Again these were echoes of the tunes we know, with only a whisper of Dub. Lee Perry is the Dub Adventurer but that is for another time. We did see the natural mystic & we heard some great Roots Reggae. I don’t get around much anymore but if there are places where there are as many smiling faces as tonight at the Nerve Centre then perhaps I should be there too.
OK…so much things to say. My hosts & fellow concert-goers, Joe & Gayle, don’t need a shout out (oh, I just did !) I think they know just how much I value their company. On the bus from Belfast Laura & Shirley, two Glaswegians on a mission to drink Derry dry, insisted that I be included in their fun. The following day I was able to return the favour & they squeezed into a packed Sandinos bar to join my small circle of friends in celebrating St Patrick. They fitted right in.
Finally Derry has lost two of its favourite sons in the past 48 hours. Martin McGuinness was radicalised by the growing demand for civil rights in his community & the violent response by armed forces employed by the British government in the late 1960s. Until January of this year he served as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. His struggle & his progress embodies that of the community into which he was born. Ryan McBride was born in Derry in 1989, different times. On Saturday he captained the city’s football team, the Candystripes, to victory & was found dead at his home the next day. Out here on the perimeter of my country, Derry has an individual, often troubled history. It welcomes strangers with an open hand & with respect. It keeps a special place for those of their own who make a difference because it is a special place.