Photography: Glyn Akroyd / @glynakroyd

Jah Wobble And The Invaders Of The Heart

Philharmonic Hall 1/2/19

A packed-out Music Room awaits the arrival of the enigmatic, genre-mashing JAH WOBBLE, whose 40 years in the music business have produced one of the most distinctive oeuvres in the post-punk pantheon. There’s a “we love this guy… but what the hell are we in for tonight?” kind of vibe in the room tonight.

Wobble walks onstage alone and begins to describe how the evening will pan out: “I’ll do a song and tell you about it, the band will come on, they’re pretty good, we’ll do some music, I’ll make some self-deprecating comments, which is really me being smug and… OK, I’ll get on with it.” Upon which he sits down and proceeds to get into a solo bass groove which immediately has heads nodding. After a while he is joined by drummer Marc Layton-Bennett who picks up the rhythm, then by guitarist Martin Chung, and, eventually, keyboard player George King who begin to lay down some jazzy, proggy flourishes over the trademark throbbing bass.

“That was the jazz workout to show you how good we are,” quips Wobble, before they launch into a dub version of Harry J Allstars’ ska classic The Liquidator, which, under Wobble’s mimed mixing desk direction, they deconstruct and build back up again. As the evening develops it becomes obvious that there’s no planned setlist. Wobble seems to go wherever his heart tells him, and he has a bountiful orchard from which to pluck. There are about 10 Invaders Of The Heart albums to start with, not to mention PiL, the English Roots Band and a list of collaborations as long as your arm.

The band members are constantly looking at him and at each other for clues and cues as to where the music could go next. It takes musicianship of the highest quality to pull this off, but that’s what we get. The band is absolutely top notch, whether playing a pared back skank or in full improvisational jazz flow. Chung and King’s ability to sit on the groove or to embellish it with technically brilliant but empathetic soloing is masterful.

“I feel like Nietzsche staring into the abyss… the abyss stares back.” He’s off on another stream of consciousness ramble, which he directs at both audience and band, who play the straight men, nodding with amused, heard it all before tolerance. It’s part music, part musical theatre – I half expect Wobble to doff his trademark fedora and don a fez before going into a comedy magic number.

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His wife, guzheng player Zi Lan Liao, and son (percussion) have joined them now. The harp-like Chinese instrument is played in a flurry of circular hand motions, but its delicate swirl is at times lost in the mix when the band are in full flow. Wobble acknowledges Augustus Pablo as having turned him on to Eastern music, saluting him with a version of Java before concluding the first half with a leftfield version of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain.

The second half of the evening progresses in a mixture of laughter, musical virtuosity and versions of older material stripped of any hint of nostalgia by dint of their updated interpretations and dynamic delivery (not sure how Wobble manages to sound dynamic, spending much of the time in a seated posture better suited to holding a TV remote than a top end Yamaha bass, but he does). The band, now just a four-piece, play spellbinding versions of Visions Of You and Becoming More Like God. Elsewhere Every Man’s An Island perfectly suits Wobble’s deadpan spoken word delivery.

PiL’s Public Image, Poptones and Socialist make it to the table, but not as we know them. The former morphing into a spacey dub, while Poptones, delicate at first, building to a hypnotic, extended crescendo.

We get dialogue from 1971 crime thriller Get Carter preceding a jazz-fusion version of its theme tune. We get a comedy, contemporary dance routine, we get poetry, we get discourse on the hierarchy of musical instruments: “The bass is the King of the Jungle – grrrrrrrr.” What next?

“Oh, we haven’t done any drum and bass.” Wobble turns to drummer Layton-Bennett – “and don’t you try cheating, playing half-pace” – before driving the poor guy to the edge of exhaustion as he pushes the tempo faster and faster. Layton-Bennett responds superbly, laying into his kit with controlled fury.

The evening passes all too quickly. A musical kaleidoscope of differing styles, brilliantly delivered, which is somehow held together under the direction of the MC, the one-off that is Jah Wobble. An East End geezer making the King of the Jungle dance to his own tune. The audience are on their feet, the applause is long and loud.

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