Tuesday, 26 April 2011

We Live In Berlin, Baby (number one in an occasional series) – Raphael Saadiq, Postbahnhof, 25/04/11

It seems a bit churlish to tag Raphael Saadiq as “the retro guy” just because he's taken to wearing David Ruffin specs and windowpane-check slacks for work. After all, right from the jump he's indicated a strong attachment to black music's core values, or at least a particular set of them; his former band Tony Toni Tone! announced themselves to the world with Little Walter, a song built around the much-adapted gospel warhorse Wade In The Water, and a later hit, Oakland Stroke, paid tribute to the Bay Area funk bands of Saadiq's youth like Tower Of Power. In other words, the lad's got form. It's only recently, however, that his retro leanings have morphed into full-blown pastiche, with 2008's The Way I See It album abandoning the kaleidoscopic neo-soul of his earlier, Grammy-winning Instant Vintage (see the pattern here?) in favour of a beautifully-woven tapestry of fauxtown and throwback soul. Furthermore, it's something he's undeniably very good at. So good, in fact, that it's quite some time into his energetic and entertaining live show before you spot the flaw in his plan. But I'll come back to that in a bit.

On the evening in question, Saadiq is playing the Postbahnhof which, as the name might suggest, is a former railway station on Berlin's east side which has been converted into an arts centre/club/live music venue (post-Ostbahnhof, y'see), across the road from the newer, still gleaming and shiny Ostbahnhof. It's very easy to tell when you're in the old East; the streets are all named after dead revolutionaries (Postbahnhof is on Strasse der Pariser Komune), and everywhere you look there are clear echoes of the Honecker years in the architecture, even though many of the tower blocks have since been done out in a variety of pastel shades in an attempt to take the edge off their innate cold-war brutalism. The venue itself is functional and unspectacular, but not unpleasant. Imagine something like a large-ish student union, bigger than the main room at Cargo, but smaller than the Garage on Highbury Corner. Even though tickets were still available at opening time, Saadiq had no trouble filling the place, and the make-up of the audience said quite a bit about the broader constituency he seems to reach in this part of Europe. Catch him at somewhere like the Jazz Cafe in London, for example, and you might expect to find yourself amongst a mixture of ageing soulboys and thirty-something black couples, mixed with a smattering of Dingwalls refugees and Gilles Peterson acolytes. Here, however, a surprisingly diverse crowd ranged from the Adidas-clad jugend you see all over the city to couples in their late 40s/early 50s – all, one presumes, attracted to the ethos of authenticity for which Saadiq flies the flag, and seemingly untroubled by the fact he makes new music which actually works incredibly hard at sounding old.

Certainly, when it comes to pastiche Saadiq makes the likes of Mark Ronson seem like rank amateurs, approaching the job with an almost forensic precision. It must be said, though, that the skilfully replicated Benny Benjamin smack of the show's opener Staying In Love or the vintage Sly Stone chug of Heart Attack are as much evidence of Saadiq's obvious love for the material he's referencing as they are of any muso obsessiveness over the way it's constructed. Incidentally, while we're on the subject of muso values, even when you take into account the size of the venue and any consequent scaling-down of the production it's still worth noting how unusual it is nowadays to see an r&b show where all the energy is generated by the musicians onstage. Apart from the odd exception like Mary J. Blige, who can dominate a stage in ways that would shame performers half her age, we've become used to the obligatory phalanx of dancers, retina-scouring pyro effects or other smoke-and-mirrors trickery being employed to mask any number of shortcomings. Not here, though. Ostensibly touring to promote his forthcoming album Stone Rollin', Saadiq makes for a charming and engaging visual focus throughout, bounding around the stage and occasionally strapping on a Telecaster to beef up the rhythm section. In fact, apart from the odd breather where he allows his backing vocalists to step forward, such as on the Leroy Hutsonesque Never Give You Up, he's out there and grafting for the whole ninety minutes. But I mentioned a flaw earlier, and it's this; often the material isn't quite strong enough. For example, good as it is, there's something absent from the musical DNA of Love That Girl which might prevent you from remembering that its base element, The Impressions' Woman's Got Soul, is much the better song. It's as if so much effort has been poured into making his recent material sound just so that Saadiq seems to have left no energy in reserve to come up with enough killer hooks to push it beyond a mere exercise in retro.

It isn't as if he can't write great hooks either – somewhat tellingly, two of the biggest cheers of the night were for the more contemporaneous Don't Mess With My Man (sung by female b.v'er Moné) and Dance Tonight, both hits for Lucy Pearl, the ill-fated “r&b supergroup” from the early noughties, in which Saadiq was partnered by A Tribe Called Quest's Ali-Shaheed Muhammad and ex-En Vogue singer Dawn Robinson. It's at this point that the already high energy level in the room takes a huge leap, and Saadiq is a skilful enough showman to sustain that energy and ride it through to the end of the show, where the Philly-inspired Get Involved switches effortlessly into the set's closer, the glorious widescreen cosmic r&b of Skyy (Can You Hear Me?). By then, he's got the crowd in the bag, and even the band's brief fusion-y detour into “Morris Day and the (Tony Williams' Life)Time” territory doesn't dampen the vigourous and genuine demands for an encore. Saadiq duly obliges, whilst driving home the undeniable point that, even if he doesn't always deliver quite so emphatically on record, he's the very definition of a sure shot live.

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