The Home Spun Show was invited down to the Jazz Cafe last weekend by the kind folks at the London International Ska Festival for the album launch of one Bitty McLean.
The great and the good of the reggae community turned out in force for a showcase of the classic reggae sound from its origins in Ska and Roots to Lover’s Rock and Dub sounds. We arrived to find a crowd waiting expectantly for the gig. There were young Rastas, both black and white with hair stacked up in ringlets and coils above their heads, old gentlemen dressed in pin-sharp suits with contrasting ties, hair slicked down, Cotton Club style. There were first generation punks, fixed up and looking sharp in black suits as well as second and third generation Jamaicans, Black British who had strived and clearly succeeded in establishing roots here in the UK.
Bitty McLean is just such a man. Born Delroy, he was the youngest of six children. With strong family ties back to Jamaica, but hailing from Birmingham, you can imagine that life was not easy for a young Black boy growing up in the Midlands during the 1970’s. He was able to survive and thrive however, studying sound engineering at college whilst performing at the sound systems and subsequently graduating to work, notably with UB40.
The gig was introduced with “Steppa Ting an Taxi”, a slow strolling ska instrumental with fat brass section and piano written by the band’s guitarist who has worked with Sly & Robbie’s Taxi production studio.
Bitty stepped onto stage to warm appreciation from the crowd and proceeded to heat things up with his special brand of warm lover’s rock which at times dubbed out in classic style (maybe due to the Sly & Robbie classic production on his new album, The Taxi Sessions).
“Games with love” was a great mix of electric and acoustic drums with droplets of water reverberating and cascading acoustically through the song as Bitty chatted his warm and romantic lyrics: ‘Please dont break my heart, I don’t play games with love’. There was a melting sax solo and classic rocksteady vibe.
As the gig proceeded, Bitty covered a Joy Landis Rhythm & Blues number written with Duke Reid on the Moonlight Lover rhythm. Before the song he told how Reid, an ex-police officer turned producer used to fire his gun whenever musicians made a mistake during sessions. During a rehearsal, Joy was singing but not to Reid’s satisfatction. Duke fired his gun in the air… Joy never returned to Jamaica.
“I’m gonna walk away from love” was a falsetto crowd pleaser to which everyone sang the lyrics with a stone classic call and response.
These were songs about romance, and family delivered simply in the classic Rhythm and Blues tradition with an open and heartfelt warmth. As these tales of love, both lost and found, unwound, I felt the whole crowd slowly ‘catch the fever’ and reciprocate this openness in the closeness of a community drawn together, however fleetingly by the engaging sounds of this accomplished Singer and his 8-piece band, whose instrumentation cossetted the vocals to great effect. By the time we reached his 1994 hit “Dedicated to the one I Love”, Bitty had the crowd in the palm of his hand:
‘While I’m far from you, my baby,
I know it’s hard for you, my baby,
Because its hard for me, my baby,
Each night before you go to bed, my baby,
Whisper a little prayer for me, my baby,
And tell the good lord above,
This is dedicated to the one I love.’
This was a show stopper with its thick brass section and particularly dirty bone coupled with heavy bass line. The crowd loved it.
The show was closer to it’s hiatus and Bitty was joined on stage by Madness’ Lee Thompson (Also of the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra) and Darren Fordham who helped to whip the crowd up even further.
We reached the Ska finale with first one rewind after another in true sound system style as Bitty sang bittersweetly “Here I stand all alone i this lonely room.” A fab solo by Henry on the Trombone coupled with heavy toots from the saxes. brought the gig to a happy crescendo.
Standing outside after the gig we chatted to the beautiful Sharlaine Brandy for ages about music: “Music brings the bourgeoisie and the rebels together,” she stated succinctly as a genuine old school rebel emerged from the gig into the yellow haze of streetlights. It was Dave Robson, punk supremo and head of Stiff records.
A great gig that brought Rock & Roll and Reggae royalty together under one roof! Check out Bitty’s new album and play it loud when you are cruising on a Saturday afternoon with the one you love.