There were moments when The Pop Group just hit, slabs of funk the closest to live Funkadelic/Parliament I've heard, irresistible and belying the chaos of the original recordings...
The Pop Group vs. Dennis Bovell
Coventry City of Culture Music Festival
Coventry City of Culture on a Saturday afternoon. Four cops at the crossroads of the paved shopping precinct with sellotape smiles, one at each mark, trying to get chatty with cruising shoppers. Every city is a city of culture of course but, add the capital letters and you have a series of events and a whole lot of fluorescent tabards attached to locals experiencing the kind of authority normally reserved for community police.
A look at Coventry’s music events (curated by Terry Hall) and only one seemed remarkable enough for a visit and that was The Pop Group performing their debut album Y in full ‘versus’ Dennis Bovell, in dub. That album is a mysterious anomaly of the late 70s, with its closest companions being some of the NYC No Wave sounds that appeared a couple or so years later, but without the very British dub treatment given by Bovell that meant it floated rather than stung. Marijuana, not cocaine.
The setting (after a couple of venue moves) was the cathedral ruins at 7.15PM although the Group were suitably and appropriately late on stage. I don’t know why I was disappointed to see the small murder of black T-shirted stage techs testing wires and instruments before they came on but I was. It seemed ordinary. Like tuning up.
The Pop Group eventually took the stage with four good heads of hair. Gareth Sager on bass, sax and six string wearing a perennially disappointed look that was probably concentration; Mark Stewart, looking big not lanky, dressed in jeans and camo jacket, straight from the farm; drummer Ian Halford who probably arrived from Scotland in his Jensen Interceptor and Alexi Shrimpton who has one of those infuriatingly young faces that will still get him asked for ID when he’s seventy.
The album unfolded, all tracks played (I think) and it seemed strange to be experiencing something so alien in such a municipal setting. Dennis Bovell spent the early part of the set apparently negotiating with the front of house sound tech who was perhaps telling him how impossible it was to do what he wanted, so it took awhile for the ‘dub’ to start happening, causing Stewart to comment about how it was ‘more like country and western than dub’. When it kicked in though, about half way through, it transformed the sound and the group played to its strengths, dropping out individually in a random fashion, playing with the structures of songs and allowing reverb and skipping echo to fill the spaces.
Mark Stewart was in magnificent voice. He can sound like a mellifluous saxophone and he can sound like a demon greeting you at the gates of hell. The man can scream. Humour was happily in place as he lyric-quoted Bono and laughed along with a cackling old ex-raver punter who found his shapes during (I think) Don’t Sell Your Dreams hilarious. To be fair, Stewart did kick the song off by adjusting his socks, one foot raised on the monitor.
There were moments when The Pop Group just hit, slabs of funk the closest to live Funkadelic/Parliament I’ve heard, irresistible and belying the chaos of the original recordings, aggressive and loving and the whole ‘seminal album’ thing disappeared into deep enjoyment. Fave tunes came and went, Snowgirl, Thief Of Fire, She is Beyond Good and Evil. Some weren’t as recognisable as Sager, the soul of the group, drove the pace, sometimes swapping bass lines with our mysterious fourth member (who managed to play bass parts on the lower strings of a six string, crouching over (presumably) pedals that made the octave magic), sometimes squeezing outraged saxophone into the mass, dropping sad, muted piano trills in the wrong/right places.
When it was over, it was over. There seemed to be a tacit understanding that there would be no encore - from The Pop Group’s point of view, on principle; from the council’s POV another ten minutes overtime for all those tabards was out of the question and then the audience needed to sit down and rest their comfortable shoes.
Despite being surrounded by equally old fuckers, in the main, I’m glad there was no feeling of having witnessed the zombie funerals of some of those ‘albums played in full for the first time in thirty years’ revivals, the slightly more credible version of going to see three of the Spice Girls at the O2. No, this was an event all of its own and, surprisingly, managed to enhance and build on something fairly intangible to create something phenomenal.
Mute Records Y in Dub
Coventry City of Culture Website