LIVE: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Mandela Hall, Belfast

As soon as the doors opened in Mandela Hall for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, DJ Dave Graham from ‘Come and Get It’ immediately set the tone of the night with all the funk, jazz and soul hits of the 70s, creating the perfect mood to greet the gathering audience with.

He kept everyone on their feet and lively during each act, mixing some of the old favourites with modern imaginings. Ever resourceful and entertaining, Dave was a bright spot to the start of the night and paved the way for Freedom 35s to set up on stage and move seamlessly into their act. Each act of the night complimented the last, which made for one hell of a great night.

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While Dave Graham got everyone accustomed to the music of the night, it was Freedom 35s who warmed the crowd up, and very quickly at that. Kicking off with ‘Lady Garden’, this purely instrumental act, consisting of guitar, bass, drums and organ, were known stop. Each song easily blended into the next with little effort. It may be difficult to write a song with gripping lyrics, but composing a complete instrumental song that grabs and holds your attention without becoming repetitive? That’s more than a skill, it’s a craft, and one that Freedom 35s appear to have nailed down superbly. Influenced by Booker T, whom they covered nicely, and The Stone Roses, this experienced four piece group have become a collective unit that works cohesively with one another.

Remaining relatively still on stage, their lively music and the power it delivers is more than adequate a replacement compared to an act that is constantly on the move. Running short on time, and indeed leaving a song earlier than anticipated, it was a shame to see them leave when they did. The upside to this however is that a large number of the audience wanted to hear more from them, which is itself a testament to how popular and entertaining their performance was. For a support act they can really get the crowd moving, yet I would still like to see them on a larger set. Regardless of musical tastes, there is definitely something for everyone to be found with Freedom 35s.

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After Freedom 35s, and Dave Graham once again on hand to keep the mood flowing with plenty of James Brown, came The Dap-Kings with Sharon Jones’ back-up singers to warm up the crowd even further before Sharon Jones took to the stage herself. Giving a taste of what was to come, it was clear that everyone was impressed. Born showmen and performers, the Dap Kings are a modern reincarnation of all the old show bands that played blues and soul. With a heavy mix of funk, jazz, rhythm and blues, and soul, the Dap Kings hold a wide range of styles that interweave during their slow and relaxing melodies to their more intense and mind blowing songs. 100 days, 100 lies is a perfect example of this. Though great on their own, they became sublime when Sharon Jones joined them.

With Sharon on the stage, it felt like a completely different act, she created an entirely new atmosphere that resonated throughout the audience. One of the closest groups comparable with the likes of classic Supremes or Tina Turner, and even James Brown, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings truly have soul that everyone could, and in many cases did, dance to.

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A powerhouse on stage, they can spellbind you through anything. Evidence to this was found when Sharon sang, rather than spoke, of her story of beating cancer during the alternate stage version of ‘Get Up and Get Out’. No matter what the topic, she engages everyone, and puts up a great performance. Having one of those voices and personalities that everyone shines to, many of the crowd kept trying to shake hands with her which was met with Sharon bringing them on stage for the next song. When it eventually came to the end of their set list, the Dap Kings returned for the start of the encore in a similar fashion to how they began the show. Bringing on a mass of audience members, they warmed up the crowd again in anticipation for Sharon Jones’ return. During this stage it was a freestyle introduction to each band member that finalised the end of their set which was extended for as long as possible.

I hate saying this, but for anyone who didn’t see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, along with Freedom 35s and even DJ Dave Graham, missed out on one of the best live gigs in Belfast this year. It doesn’t matter what musical tastes you acquire, the sheer velocity and strength of these performances alone, along with a special dance night afterwards with both groups, created a truly compelling and enjoyable night. Funny, interactive and personal, I can only hope to get to another live performance like this at some stage in the near future. If there’s a band you know similar to Sharon Jones and that Dap Kings or Freedom 35s, then let me know because I want to be front row and centre. Joe Smyth, GiggingNI.com

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