EVENT REVIEW: Michael Jackson Birthday Tribute @ Jazz Café, London (29-30 August 2009)

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I know it’s harsh to judge such things on aesthetics alone but most of the crowd gathered @The Jazz Cafe for the Michael Jackson tribute, on what would have been his 51st Birthday, did not look like your average aficionados. There seemed to be little evidence of the kind of sophisticated, cosmo crowd that I’ve encountered at previous soul tribute gigs at the JC. To be fair most looked like they would be more at home at a karaoke night down the local pub. I only say this because I know now from experience that an informed, appreciative audience is as integral to a good gig as the artists themselves. In any case, as the night wore on my initial analysis did not prove entirely justified. As things got under way, the crowd roared to life when the house band played a medley of MJ hits. We were in for an even bigger treat as Eric ‘Erro’ Roberson mounted the stage, not just to perform but also to host the night’s proceedings. I have been blessed to see Erro live and in action on several occasions and he is so consistent; the consummate performer- always giving his fans the best and loving every minute of it. The level of warmth, charisma and playful self-deprecation with which he engages with his audience is rare. Coupled with that gorgeous vocal gift of his, in other words, with Erro on stage it’s a sure thing that it’ll be a good show. To kick things off he launched into a rousing rendition of a personal MJ favourite ‘PYT (Pretty Young Thing)’. Fluffed lines and all, he worked the crowd into a sweet frenzy; everyone became an MJ connoisseur. Now that’s the way to start a show! Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better Erro blessed us with another one of his (and my) favourites ‘Human Nature’. I had mentioned to my sister earlier in the day that I hoped he would do that particular song and just as I expected, Roberson’s trademark mellifluous rasp fit the song perfectly.

Erro was swiftly followed by UK soul singer Chris Ballin who did true justice to the Stevie Wonder-penned ‘I Can’t Help It’. This tune really separated the casual MJ fan from the faithful lovers of his more soulful side, as less of the audience joined in with the singing. Still, Ballin’s performance received a lot of love. Resident backing vocalist Donna Gardier got her moment to shine with her versions of ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ and ‘Remember The Time’.

After Ms Gardier’s performance, dishy keyboardist Lennox Cameron seduced the ladies in the crowd with his take on ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ showcasing his impressive range and head voice.

Dance music veteran, Kym Mazelle representing MJ’s home state of Gary, Indiana (she grew up in the same neighbourhood as the Jacksons) did a ska interpretation of ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ using the guitar riff from Chaka Demus and PliersMurder She Wrote’. I have a theory that it’s hard to go wrong with a live reggae remix of just about any song and thankfully, this was no exception.

Next up we had a bit of contemporary Hip Hop royalty on stage in the form of Phonté Coleman. He wore a T-Shirt showing his solidarity to Michael vis-a-vis the child molestation charges. He convinced the crowd to repeat ‘My hero didn’t molest those b***h a** kids’ and they happily obliged. My knowledge of Phonté’s music is limited and filtered through my sister’s love for his group Little Brother and my brief exposure to his undeniable talent on a collaboration with Erro from the ‘…Left’ album. I was interested to see how Phonté’s lyrical agility would translate at a MJ tribute gig. I felt almost unworthy being there considering all the dedicated Phonté fans I know who weren’t. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when Mr Coleman decided to flex his vocals on ‘Man In The Mirror’. It was by far one of the high points of the show as the audience chanted along, word for word, ad-lib for ad-lib, proving that ‘MITM’ is an enduring favourite on these shores as noted in a recent online BBC article.

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Erro returned to the stage, most definitely taking the prize for best song choices of the night when he covered two more classic MJ ballads ‘Lady In My Life’ and ‘Rock With You’. Being the smooth operator he is, during the performance Mr Roberson launched a serenade offensive on an ecstatic female member of the audience.

Other crowd-pleasing numbers performed at the show included ‘Gone Too Soon’, ‘You Are Not Alone’ ‘You Rock My World’ (which worked surprisingly well, live) and Phonté’s ‘Billie Jean’; Trilby hat, signature MJ moves, special rap et al. The show came to a triumphant end with a medley of Jackson Five classics.

Considering this tribute must have been put together in a relatively short period of time, the organisers and artists alike – when they weren’t forgetting the lyrics – did a stellar job. Hearty kudos goes to the song selections. Often such shows succeed – or not -on what tunes were chosen to be covered. Sometimes at the end of a gig there’s the lingering feeling that one too many good songs were left off the playlist. Certainly not on this occasion (although come to think of it a renditon of ‘Liberian Girl’ by Erro would have been a dream come true). Somehow so many of MJ’s best made it in confirming once again, if we needed any reminding, Jackson’s timeless, universal appeal. A fitting and timely homage therefore, to a man who changed the landscape of popular music forever.

Ticket’s for Sunday’s show are still available at www.ticketmaster.co.uk

Review by Tolita.