[23 October 2002]
The Indian Summer that England has been enjoying just ended abruptly, and outside the cold weather is beating London like a ginger-haired stepchild. The front pages of the newspapers blowing in the wind on racks outside corner shops are carrying a story that the best advice the American Government can give the terrified people of Washington D.C., in the midst of sniper attacks, is to “walk in a zig zag,” while up on Capitol Hill George Dubya is planning for war. Inside the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Washington D.C.‘s Thievery Corporation have come with their own message—let’s all kick back and enjoy ourselves.
Eric Hilton and Rob Garza are the Thievery Corporation and this show is part of their European tour to promote the recently-released Richest Man In Babylon. Live, this is one of the most elaborate things they have done, with guests and other performers joining them throughout. Certainly not a couple of knob twiddlers and an otherwise empty stage. While electronic music is often cold and methodical, this has the warmth of a summer sunset. Thievery Corporation’s sound doesn’t come from a background of sweaty nightclubs and till-dawn-do-us-part relationships, but from a love of U.K. groups like the Specials, Madness, Secret Affair and the Style Council that leads them onto soul, jazz, bossa nova and Jamaican music.
Since forming in 1995, Thievery Corporation have come a mile, and the whole sound sways from eastern sitar—on songs like “Facing East”—to dub to a soulful jazzy syrup that pours out and defies definitive categorisation. Guest singer Emiliana Torrini helps take things down, and the Icelandic kitten, although sounding like fellow countrywoman Bjork, has none of the mad-as-a-sack-of-puffins screech as she just purrs her way through with a voice that has no doubt broken a thousand hearts under the midnight sun.
The dreadlocked pair of Roots and Zee lift the tempo with their dub reggae and roots hall bounce, yet with Eric and Rob behind them overseeing everything, it all just seems to fit together and flow into one glorious mass. Like master conductors they hold it all together and stop the whole thing falling into a mish-mash of muzak as everything ticks along in front of a crowd nodding and frugging in a haze of jazz-cigarette smoke.
With the huge screen at the back of the stage playing footage of Jamaican streets, sunsets and flowing scenery the music sounds like the soundtrack to the film of a great holiday you once had, or at least dreamed of having. The title track off The Richest Man In Babylon is lusher than pretty much anything the current crop of R&B hopefuls have come out with, while “All That We Perceive” is Muhammad Ali, Rumble-In-The-Jungle cool. They also dedicate “The State of the Union” to George Bush, as if knowing that the one person who could do with some dub right now is Dubya himself.
Don’t fall for thinking that this is just another live version of some Ibiza chill-out album, as it rises above the standard fare, and live they put on a bit of a show. Certainly a bonus to anyone who has witnessed reference-point contemporaries Air play live. During a more frantic encore with Roots and Zee, one of the bouncing pair dives into the crowd and is carried on his back right across a sea of hands—not breaking off from the vocals at any point—from the front of the stage to the mixing desk and bar at the back, where he stands up triumphantly and looks back over the people. If there were barriers between the audience and performers then the Thievery Corporation were pulling them down, as this turned into an event and a celebration as much as it was a gig.
When the good people get to heaven, they’ll find St Peter at the pearly gates kicking back, smoking a joint and listening to the Thievery Corporation. When they ask him why he’s doing that, Saint Peter will just smile, hand them the spliff and say, “Because this is heaven, my friend, because this is heaven.” George Dubya could learn a lot from the people he currently shares a city with.