A few years ago, jazz drummer Dylan Howe “re-imagined” David Bowie’s “Low” and created a deft, inventive, respectful jazz take on Bowie’s extraordinary album. It was very good – as were the gigs – but it wasn’t “Low” and listening to it just made you want to listen to the real thing.
Taking on a classic album can take you into dangerous territory. Will it be that respectful re-imagination or will you just be the biggest covers band in the world? The applause at the end of The Nu Civilisation Orchestra’s 50th anniversary glorious celebration of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” left no one in any doubt that they’d fallen on the right side.
Was “What’s Going On” Gaye’s classic album / social document, the protest record to end all protest records, really released 50 years ago? What an indictment that, just as much as in 1971, if we ever needed a “What’s Going On” it’s now because what was going on is still going on.
The song “What’s Going On” was conceived by Obi Benson of The Four Tops after he’d witnessed police dealing with anti-war protesters in what became known as “Bloody Thursday”, Gaye took on the song after The Other Tops turned it down, and ran with it, turning it into not so much a song as a suite, a song cycle. A gentle yet forceful protest, about the Vietnam war, the environment, the state we’re in. About what’s going on.
For Gaye, this wasn’t out of the blue. ““In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say … I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realised that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world. With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?”
In 1969 he released “Abraham, Martin and John” about assassinated US icons Lincoln, King and Kennedy. Add to that a personal life in turmoil, cocaine, a failed marriage, the death (to cancer) of his singing partner Tammi Terrell…
Makes you wanna holler…
That was 50 years ago. Change the detail of where the war is and… the question remains. What’s going on?
On Saturday night what was going on was The Nu Civilisation Orchestra bringing this classic album to life in a tribute that was at once respectful and fitting and joyous.
Featuring Nathaniel Facey (alto sax), Romarna Campbell (drums), Sarah Tandy (piano), backing vocalists Kianja Harvey Elliot and Cara Crosby Irons, and conducted by Peter Edwards, the 23 piece orchestra were lush, rich and deep, hitting that fine line between imaginative and respectful.
It’s never going to be Marvin Gaye doing What’s Going On, so let’s do something different. A really cool idea was that each night of the tour featured a guest slot from a local artist, and here we got Aflo (pictured below), a young poet/activist, who received a rousing reception for her pointed political rap.
Taking on the role of Marvin might seem a thankless task, but British soul singer Noel McKoy did a fine job of it, sensibly not trying to ape Gaye’s rich, soulful jazzy voice, but being more show, more live.
He put everything into it. You could see he loved it and he meant it. “Every time I’ve heard it or sung it, I think to myself that mothers are actually still crying and young brothers are still dying. The tracks from this album were and still are the benchmark of soulful commentary, its spirit and honesty remain potent to this very day.”
Aflo is playing a charity fundraiser at Presuming Ed’s on Nov 13 in support of the Survivors Trust, an umbrella charity consisting of 120 specialist member agencies around the UK and Ireland providing direct services to survivors of sexual violence.
Photos: Graeme Miall/Tomorrow’s Warriors