Reel Me Records Presents… Laid Blak: Unplugged @ St George’s Hall, (19/09/13)
A diverse cross-section of people shuffled into the busy foyer of Bristol’s St George’s Hall, one of the city’s most esteemed and exclusive venues for events and performance.
Quite a culture clash for a venue synonymous with restrain and serenity, the evening’s headliners were Bristol’s favourite party starters, the self-described ‘Urban Reggae Heavyweights’, Laid Blak. Where normally the band would be blasting their music from speaker-stacks in crowded clubs or festivals stages, this ‘Unplugged’ gig was set to strip away their sound to its exposed acoustic bones, then build it back up with the addition of a grand piano, strings section, African drums and backing vocals. Such a bold move is potentially shaky ground for any band, especially when the stakes have been raised even higher with a blitz of advertising and press attention.
With the sell-out crowd ushered into the main hall up spiraling staircases and through impressive, stone-clad entrances, Reel Me Records owner Kristian took to the stage. Introducing the much-anticipated event, he highlighted the special nature of the venue and the imaginative re-working of the music about to be played. Far from the wild gigs that Laid Blak have made their home, this ambitious ‘Unplugged’ evening was a unique opportunity to see the band in a different light, whilst also signifying the start of an exciting new chapter in their growth with Reel Me Records.
First to the stage from the label’s roster was ‘Miri’, along with her accompanying band. Very listenable, her smoky voice sailed over the room and softly shepherded the stragglers of the lively congregation towards their seats.
With a brilliantly amplified cajon drummer and an acoustic guitar player who sported a percussive style similar to Netwon Faulkner, they were a captivating listen and an entertaining watch.
Performing under a huge Biblical fixture embossed on the wall behind them, mesmerising live projections completed a most ethereal backdrop for performance.
The hall fell increasingly silenced under Miri’s husky spell, with the few that didn’t fully succumb to it soon hushed enthusiastically by their peers. Having eagerly soaked up her performance with an increasing interest, the smooth set from Miri and her band had warmed the crowd nicely.
Next on stage was Jethro ‘Alonestar’ Sheeran and his acoustic ensemble, which consisted of an ice-cool guitar player, a bandana-wearing rogue on the cello and the graceful vocals of Rosie Ribbons.
Stripping his rap music down in such a manner proved an interesting twist on the norm for the genre, with a sound built of head-nod guitar rhythms and rich, warm cello, upon which Alonestar fired his rhymes and Rosie soared her lyrics.
The impact of the cellist was particularly memorable; whether carving out emotive passages or delivering short, catchy hooks, the dramatic sound and his entertainingly animated presence left a great imprint on proceedings.
Drawing the focus of the crowd and building atmosphere with claps and cheers, the room felt like it was stepping up a gear as Alonestar and his team took the helm.
After a brief interval, the hall buzzed with excitement at the sight of Laid Blak and their wealth of extra musicians in tow for the occasion. Dressed unusually smart in suits and formal wear, the band still retained their ‘edge’ with a mixture of added bling, baseball caps and a trademark kilt!
A good dozen or so strong, this extended musical family fine-tuned their kit on-stage whilst the band’s rhythm guitarist played a simple ‘riddim’ to hush the animated chatter and gee up the crowd. People connected instantly to the infectious, reggae backbone of the Laid Blak sound, with smiles visibly growing from the corners of expectant faces all around the room.
Slowly building as time went on, the drip-fed introduction of instruments to the looping guitar built expectation for the main act nicely. A chant of ‘Share a Little Love’ grew organically amongst the musicians and the injection of the African drums added an exotic twist to the sound, the performance swelling from its simple conception only minutes prior.
With the opening jam having finished and the crowd fully invested, proceedings formally commenced when MC Joe Peng invited his glamorously-dressed daughter Svea to the stage to perform some impressive opening numbers, prompting a respectful hush that gave way to big cheers of praise shortly after.
From here on, the evening unfolded in a very informal nature with the audience encouraged to shout out questions in-between tracks, prompting jokes and tales to arise in an endearingly haphazard fashion. In tandem with a set list that meandered between eras (including “the first song we ever writ… uhh, wrote!”), the evening formed a cool insight into the formation and growth of the band, with funny digressions, extra context around the songs and resolutions to a surprising number of kilt-based queries!
Unlike the formal nature of many events at St George’s Hall, the venue rarely achieved genuine quiet and people stood and danced as freely as those that enjoyed their Church-like pews. This relaxed atmosphere was a reflection of the easygoing attitude on-stage, which later saw the band invite up a couple of young fans from the extended family to join in the fun.
To the delight of the audience, the ecstatic youngsters boogied around in Laid Blak t-shirts, borrowed the baseball cap from MC Joe Peng, high-fived the band and briefly hopped atop their ‘throne’ on-stage, enjoying the music with broad, warm smiles.
Dipping into cover material with The Abyssinian’s ‘Satta Massagana’, the band then showed diversity in their capabilities, a strength elaborated upon further with Flex’s song, ‘One Hour of Power’. Stripped down to minimal acoustic guitar, grand piano and backing vocals, it allowed his voice to shine, offering a different sound from the popular vocalist in a move that was well received by all.
As the hall’s temperature continually rose in the latter half of their set, it was fitting that ‘Lava’ was to appear on the playlist. Greeted with an instant ripple of recognition (it featured on their recent ‘Red and Blak’ album), it was made all the more impressive by the return of the strings section.
In tandem with the smooth guitar solos that rang out around the hall, the added texture and drama of the strings gave the familiar songs a completely different identity that was fascinating to hear.
Fan-favourite ‘Bristol Love’ prompted a great response and sounded rich at the hands of the extended band, stirring the room into further dance and song. Having concluded the ‘Unplugged’ element of the performance, the finale was kick-started by their hugely popular track ‘Red’, which instantly rose people to their feet to fully embrace the Laid Blak party!
With the venue bopping away happily, the universal appeal of their music was clear to see in the carefree smiles of all ages and backgrounds, all completely lost in the moment. With laughter and grins flashed amongst the band and across the room as Bristol chanted their adopted hometown anthems, the moment itself superseded the reverence of the imposing venue, which is an impressive feat to accomplish.
Huge noise from the happy crowd commanded an encore, quickly approved with a swift nod from the side of the stage to a jubilant response from the beaming mob.
Wrapping the evening up with a cover of Bob Marley’s classic ‘Three Little Birds’, the music and applause rang out loudly from every corner of the iconic venue in memorably animated scenes that concluded a resoundingly successful night.
After a summer of big performances that included the headlining slot at St Paul’s Carnival and the main stage at Boomtown Fair, Laid Blak delivered another classic, feel-good occasion, as has become their trademark. Whilst there were occasional dips in momentum and a few incidences of painful microphone feedback from the sound desk, there was nothing that could chip away at the fantastic scenes of St George’s Hall dancing and singing in carnival fashion.
For everyone present, this Unplugged showcase was a brilliant celebration of Laid Blak’s journey so far, whilst also an exciting hint of bigger and better things yet to come. Not just a great evening of entertainment, this was another proud milestone for one of Bristol’s favourite feel-good bands.
Connect with Laid Black online, here.