TRUE GROOVE ALL STARS ft TOMÁS DONCKER / SAM HUBER / KEITH SHOCKLEE (PUBLIC ENEMY) @ TEMPLE OF ART & MUSIC, LONDON SE1 6DR
It is always a pleasure to see the amazing individual and force of nature that is Tomás Doncker, head of the fantastic True Groove label in New York. Not only a serious talent but a genuinely lovely and generous man too. It is likewise always a pleasure to see my good friend and super talented musician Jon Read of Project Blackbird. Tonight we are eased into the live section of the night by none other than Public Enemy legend Keith Shocklee on the decks, whose continuous mix of the funkiest tunes sets the perfect scene and vibe for what is to come.
This is my first visit to the Temple of Art and Music; a short jaunt from Elephant & Castle in South East London. It is a lovely venue, set inside a larger complex with a hip artisan-style food hall. There is a friendly, welcoming vibe about the place and all the people who work there. Tomás is something of an Anglophile. On his last-but-one visit to these shores, he told me the underground scene in New York is dead and people are more interested in trying to be Beyonce than embracing grassroots music. By contrast, when he came to a gig I was promoting in Lewisham, he immediately fell in love with the place, and was back two months later performing for me on the same stage, before jetting off to Paris and Berlin, where he also loves the indie scenes.
That last time I saw the True Groove All Stars in South East London, it was as the backing band for NY-based funky Finlander Sam Huber. Tonight they are set up for sets fronted by Tomás first and Sam afterwards. Both versions feature Tomás on Guitar with a kicking band whose horn section includes Jon Read on trumpet, with his long-time collaborators Sue Robinson on Sax and Tim Smart on Trombone, which means basically The Specials’ horn section! Their chemistry really shows. As I remark to Jon during the break, they even bend and swoop notes together in perfect synchronicity. The rest of the band consists of drummer Leroy Thompson-Leftronics, percussionist and producer Mark Henry, bass guitarist James Dellatacoma and keyboardist Joel Desroches, who manages to provide chords, colour and some breathtaking lead play. In addition Keith Shocklee continues to add his own vibe from the decks. These are top musicians, make no mistake about that. Mark and James also provide some fine BVs. Marla Mase also adds fine vocals and stage presence on one track late on.
They kick off with a sumptuous slice of life-affirming Funk that simultaneously brings to mind great bands of the past, like Tower of Power and Rufus etc, whilst exuding a freshness that nods to the likes of Thundercat and Anderson.Paak. Tomás wastes little time in working the crowd and they respond with plenty of love. Track after track mixes goose-bumping horn arrangements with the funky powerhouse of a band. Tomás’s vocals switch between sassy and playful one moment, soulful and touching then next. The BVs are spine-tingingly classy.
One of the striking elements of Tomás’s approach is his generosity, not only to his musicians but to all the other individuals who help make the tour and shows happen, inviting applause for each as they carry off a great solo, make some major contribution to a track or simply walk by the stage. Midway into the set he introduces Driving Through Limbo, the single I have been playing on my radio show, and it is even more gorgeous and moving live; not least hearing the horns so deep and rich and the drums so crisp and powerful. They then seamlessly segue into a shuffling Marvin Gaye track. Once again, the playing by all the band members is immaculate and Tomás shows us he can do jazz-infused laid back lead guitar play too. His call and response with Joel on keyboards is joyous. Percussionist Mark then pulls out a sax and produces a jazzy solo of his own. This band is full of surprises.
Tomás recounts the tale of his lifelong love of The Specials and how they changed his life as a teenager before playing his version of Doesn’t Make It Alright which he says is top of his bucket list of songs he wants to sing live before he dies! He dedicates it to literally every member of The Specials one by one, especially to the now sadly departed Terry Hall, but also points to its relevance after the George Floyd murder and other unhappy events. His version is emotionally charged and beautifully performed. They end with Do Or Die, all choppy horns, breathtakingly funky instrumental play and Tomás in exuberant mood.
After their show, Keith takes us into urban funk mash-up heaven with more fantastic mixing at the decks. Then it is time for Sam Huber to take to the stage. Tomás describes him as ‘the funkiest man in Finland and possibly the planet’! As with the last time I saw Sam and TGAS, he is a manic and compelling figure, larger than life and bristling with energy. He also has a unique and impressive voice with the charisma and personality to match. He launches straight into some classic sounding Soul that has a Stax sensibility but with a funk aura. That classic Soul leaning is what particularly marks Sam’s style out and the horns adapt perfectly to that vibe. At times I could close my eyes and think I was listening to the Bar-Kays! Sam can pull some shapes and moves too and, like Tomas, he effortlessly works the crowd and they warm to him accordingly.
The single Hot Summer Burning, also featured extensively on my show earlier this year, sounds menacing and brooding live as Sam and Tomás play off each other vocally. Throughout this and the previous set, we get amazing solos from Joel, Jon, Tim, Sue and Tomás. Zombies, a song written during lockdown, is funky as anything with some great contrasts between Sam’s deeper and upper registers and a lovely unison theme in the horns played in mixed octaves. All the while I am increasingly aware of how much I am mesmerised by Leroy’s drumming which is flawlessly funky, free-flowing but hard as f*** and so instinctive with every fill, every change, every clever punctuation of the shifts in each part of a track. But then I could wax lyrical about every member of this superb band. Plastic Love is Otis Redding in a mash with Ry Cooder maybe! Punchy, catchy and invigorating.
They end with Bright Light which brings deep keyboard chords and unusual rhythms. It is probably the most striking track even though it is more laid back, building in small layers and nuances before introducing an unexpected shift into an earworm of a chorus. Again, the drums punctuate changes in mood and tempo. The harmonised horns at the end are the icing on a delicious cake. But there is even time for an encore; a funky reimagined rendition of Patti Smith’s People Have The Power which she apparently gave Tomás her blessing to perform. It has been a thoroughly enjoyable set and night and a reminder of the high standards New York’s funky fraternity aspire to.