Skinny Pelembe

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  • Pete Beardsworth
Stepping Tiger @ Alexander's, Chester 20/9/18

Tonight, at least in our little corner of north-west England, it is a particularly cold, windy, and relentlessly rainy affair. The kind of miserable weather you’d like to be comfortably spectating from behind glass, deep in the loving embrace of your favourite armchair, waiting for the coffee to percolate. Out in the wet wilderness, however, a brave few of Liverpool’s dedicated heads are heading over to Chester for a musical remedy. DJ crew and promotion team Stepping Tiger launched their inaugural event in April, and in just a few months have already built up a strong local reputation for unexpected, eclectic bookings, from soul-jazz vocalist Yazmin Lacey to legendary reggae selector Oxman. Tonight’s treat is a profoundly talented pairing – singer-songwriter-guitarist-MC-producer SKINNY PELEMBE and multi-instrumentalist jazzman PETE BEARDSWORTH.

Tucked away in an arcade off a main road, the unassuming yet surprisingly spacious Alexander’s is a cosy reprieve from the interminably bad weather. We are greeted by a thundering bassline as the DJs warm up the room, blending funky afrobeat, spacy dub reggae, and bouncing calypso rhythms (an airing of Count Sticky’s raucous mento single Chico Chico is particularly appreciated). A varied demographic of young and old begin to busy the bar as a rather serious-looking Pete Beardsworth and his band take to the stage to open up the night’s live showcase.

Intertwining horn and guitar lines lead into an accomplished fusion of soul, jazz, and Latin stylings, Beardsworth alone handling keyboards, saxophone, flute and vocals alongside his guitarist, bassist, and drummer. It emerges that the band’s serious faces can be attributed to nerves, as Beardsworth quietly and humbly reveals to the crowd that this is their first ever gig. Their spirited mixture of downtempo grooves and fast-paced bop is presented with a careful grace that suggests much practice and hard work, and by the end of the set the band cook with confidence.

"Pelembe deftly balances the influences of RnB, trip-hop, and indie rock into a compelling sonic hybrid that is uniquely his own"

Beardsworth blows his sax with a bright, melodic warmth reminiscent of 70s horn stars Eddie Harris, Lou Donaldson or Harold Alexander. Shades of Yusef Lateef are apparent in his nuanced flute playing. His vocal imperfections are disarming, exhibiting a vulnerability which lends much charm to his songs. Together with Roshan Gunga’s brilliantly restrained, low-key guitar contributions and the rock-solid rhythm section of bassist George Butt and drummer Tom Towle, the crowd is smitten, and after the finale of Beardsworth’s romantic opus Back To You, the beaming bandleader excitedly flogs copies of his debut EP to his new-found fanbase.

As Skinny Pelembe and his group begin, I wonder how the expansive psychedelia of Pelembe’s studio recordings will translate to a live setting. The supporting cast is comprised of Chloe Beth Smith (keyboards, vocals), Alley Lloyd (bass, vocals), Remi Graves (drums) and percussionist Regan Bowering (conga, cabasa, cowbell). Pelembe himself is armed with his guitar and a vocal style ranging between cool minimalism and passionate intensity, mixing straightforward singing with rapping in a fashion similar to the singjay school of reggae.

Beyond the immediate influence of Jamaican music – we are treated to a hazy solo rendition of Willie Williams’ roots classic Armagideon Time – Pelembe deftly balances the influences of RnB, trip-hop, and indie rock into a compelling sonic hybrid that is uniquely his own. His reverb-soaked, overdriven Telecaster twang brings to mind the menacing 60s surf-rock of Link Wray or Dick Dale, while simultaneously echoing the 80s dreampop of Galaxie 500. It is a huge, sweeping guitar sound that is wielded masterfully over the complex yet deceptively effortless-looking rhythm section of Graves and Bowering, and further enhanced by the synchronised vocal hooks and instrumental comping of Smith and Lloyd.

They funk. They rock. They get down. Heads nod and feet are tapped to the irresistible thump of I Just Wanna Be Your Prisoner. Rebellious whoops and cries of “Yeh!” are incited by Pelembe’s thinly-veiled political critiques. Motivated by a lone, enthusiastic dancer (who’s a bit like The Dude from The Big Lebowski), the reserved Thursday night crowd, once weary from the weather, become merry (and presumably well-watered). As the night draws to close, and Pelembe, like Beardsworth before him, is mobbed by devotees eager to pick up a copy of his new EP, the feeling sinks in that we’ve been lucky tonight. Not just for the opportunity to score some limited-edition merch, but to witness the beginnings of two very promising musicians. As we reflect in the pissing rain at Chester train station, waiting for the last train back to Liverpool, we’re really glad we didn’t stay at home tonight.

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