Love him or loathe him, you can’t fault Damon Albarn when it comes to genuinely trying to do something different. Having thrown together tonight’s four-show-only performance (the show is fresh from Marseille, London and Cork) from a spattering of creative brilliance connected with his Honest Jon’s label (the Chop Up part comes from a Nigerian reference to a feast), he’s created a low-key offering so dripping with new-to-our-shores talent that it’ll have half the audience running out to buy records as soon as the last notes ring out.
The set-up, much like the label, is distinctly African. Backing each other on songs written by any and all of the artists over the course of a two -hour set, the show starts with a jagged jazz feel, before spreading into some beautifully soulful ballads, manic electro-dance hits the likes of which could never belong to a European act and the occasional moment of stunning urban hip-hop. Many parts are delivered in a variety of gorgeous, lilting African dialects and backed up with a full brass section from the ever-boisterous Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. It might be lengthy, but this mish-mash is difficult to take your eyes off, and entirely unpredictable, spinning erratically yet memorably from genre to genre.
The headline draws, of course, are Albarn, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, but good as they are, the trio largely take a back seat. Flea and Allen’s roles as a rhythm section are perfectly instigated, but they rarely take a more prominent role, with the exception of a handful of tracks from their bizarrely named new act Rocketjuice To The Moon. Those tracks are decent mellow indie numbers but nothing to get too excited about. Instead the highlights come from the likes of Shangaan Electro, whose manic stage-front dance off is as frenetic and as it is insanely colourful, the kind of performance that you feel tired watching. Malian actor turned singer Fatoumata Diawara is another stunner, with a serene, soulful and subtly toned down acoustic style that captivates from the off. Offering up the calmest corners of this raucous display, Diawara lets her voice do the talking. Chicago brothers Hypnotic Brass Ensemble have even calmed things down for the night and taken what is largely a support role, but their technical wizardry still shines through.
What makes tonight special is in part the mangled mash-up style in which the musicians play, but it’s also the originality on offer; the 25-strong selection of musicians who seem to weave their way on and off the stage at will, and show such wonderful mutual respect. Credit where it’s due: in celebrating their 10th anniversary, Choice Cuts have pulled off perhaps the biggest coup of their entire lifespan in bringing in such a diverse and talented array of performers. It’s going to be tough to repeat – and the reports of joyful farewells between Albarn and the likes of Shangaan Electro filtering back from backstage suggest there are no plans to go again – but let’s hope we haven’t seen the last of such off-the-wall brilliance. Failing that, let’s hope someone has the clout and confidence to bring a few of the lesser-known artists back once more. James Hendicott
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble photo by Kieran Frost
Reviewed for AU Magazine, click here to see original.