To think that I almost missed this gig. For those of you with little time, I will spare any suspense you might have by getting right to the point. What I am about to write is not a review, it is a celebration. The British Council invited the Matthew Herbert Big Band and Eska to mark its 75th anniversary; and what these artists produced one late October evening must surely have been as magnificent as anything that had gone before.
To think that I almost missed this gig. It had been a slow, humid start to the working week, the day's only redemption being that it would soon be over. A ticket became available only hours before the event, and - mired in that familiar Monday misery - I initially turned it down, having a writing deadline awaiting me at home. But then I saw my folly. This was Matthew Herbert we were talking about. The man who'd produced Roisin Murphy's first album. Who'd produced for Björk (who in my creative affections I hold second only to Radiohead). So off to the Barbican I went.
The night was a sell-out; the first half featured three acts, the highlight tune being, on reflection, a collaboration between The Guillemots and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Their first two tunes didn't hit the mark for me, the first being a touch twee, but the final one was the kind of folk you'd hear in the closing credits for Pan's Labyrinth. (Which is goooood.)
So. The Matthew Herbert Big Band. Let me run the numbers for you. One drummer, one double bassist, four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones. Monstrous. This was not a horn section, it was a foghorn section. That brass would have had Fela skanking in his grave. And then there was the small matter of a 78-piece choir, drawn from Goldsmiths art college and a range of budding bands. Matthew Herbert stood centre left, immaculate in tails, crouching every now and then over a sampling machine; and before them all stood Eska. I have been marvelling at her vocal chords for a decade, and have watched her sing backing vocals for artists infinitely less talented, but more marketable (whatever that means). Now she was front and centre. She didn't just own it, she was imperial.
She swaggered out there in black with a twist of gold; Matthew Herbert gave the cue to his cohort; and they began. But where I can I begin with a performance like this? The opening horns on "The Story" were like those you'd hear accompanying a victorious general on his return to Rome; then Eska's voice rolled in over them, a tide washing onto God's beach. "Battery", an ode to the inhumanity of Guantanamo, saw the entire choir and Eska singing through meshed hoods. Meanwhile, Matthew Herbert's sampling was a thing of infinite wonder. In the same week that Jan Moir had seemingly called out Stephen Gately's sexuality as the reason for his untimely death, Herbert opened one tune by asking each member of his ensemble to tear a copy of the Daily Mail to shreds, taking a recording of the resultant sound. Then, as his musicians playfully showered each other with this paper's entrails, Herbert - in an inspired act of recycling - turned his recording into dubstep, turning a middle-class missive to an urban anthem. Yet the clear highlight of this gig - which was by turns joyful and mournful, but always passionately political - was "One Life". Herbert told the story of how the NHS had tenderly brought his prematurely-born son to health, whilst at the same time his Government was complicit in the deaths of thousands of Iraq. He laid down the soundtrack of a life support machine, each soft beep representing the death of 100 Iraqis, over which his choir and orchestra layered six minutes of soaring, sorrowful harmonies. "One Life is...One Life is..." came their final refrain, with a resonance that could make the soul burst at the seams. This show was monumental; there was no act that could have followed it, save the last Tube ride home. And this review can only be ended by quoting, with vigorous approval, the cover of "There's Me and There's You", the Big Band's album: "We...believe that music can still be a political force of note and not just the soundtrack to over-consumption". Hear, hear, hear.