REVIEW: Get the Blessing – Black Box, Belfast

Robocobra01 All that’s missing from the Black Box tonight is the heady fog of cigarette smoke – the air is too clean – otherwise this feels like the perfect venue for some old-school jazz.

In its absence a cacophony of excited voices fills the air. All walks of life have congregated, from relaxed retired couples through to 20-something hyped-up hipsters. A chap with a German accent politely requests the spare seat from our table.

Robocobra02Local group Robocobra Quartet take to the stage gently and gawkily. The brass and bass elements standing still, shouted into submission by the centre-stage presence of Chris Ryan on drums. Ryan’s passion and energy is undeniable, but there’s a little too much beat poet café in the set, pushing it dangerously close to parody. Bellowed rhymes about text messages sent en route to LAX, followed by a jump onto his kit and into the audience betray a Jim Morrison influence which disturb more than engage. It is the physical presence of the group that bother most.

The Doors fused poetry, jazz and rock, with all eyes on Morrison, but each held their own space on stage and the camaraderie and enjoyment was apparent. All emotion here is spent through Ryan – even during an eerie stuttering oboe solo, the bandmates are unmoved while Ryan is wide-eyed with orgiastic anticipation. The narcissism may be part of the shtick, but it alienates, not moves, and detracts from the music.

Their Facebook profile describes the group as ‘Baroque-Punk’ but ‘60’s Beat Poets with a contemporary influence’ would be fairer.  The audience seemed to be on side, but they’re probably too scared to say otherwise.

The stage resets and a drum kit is lit in yellowy-green hues at the far corner of the stage. The audience is louder in their murmurings; not yet impatient, but intoxicated. As if the Beat club vibe hadn’t made felt enough, a young woman walks past with a glass of steaming chocolate-coloured espresso. She is not wearing a beret.

GettheBlessing11Clad in smart dark suits, black shiny shoes and crisp white shirts open at the collar, Get the Blessing take up position and with barely a moment’s hesitation launch into the ‘Caravan’-esque rhythms of ‘Low Earth Orbit’ from their OC DC album.

From the first bars they grab their audience by the lapels with their electronica-infused jazz. This is a carefully crafted show which moves up and down the tempos and moods, featuring highlights from across their recording career to date. Jim Barr’s obscure and laconic banter between tracks reminds us that even in the absence of lyrics, there are stories being told, moods invoked, emotional responses provoked. The notes aren’t there simply to colour the words – they are the words, tacitly shaping our understanding.

Between them Get the Blessing have worked with some of the biggest names of the last twenty years including Portishead, Jeff Beck, Radiohead, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation, and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. That experience results in a well-oiled machine which works in absolute synchronicity. While Barr is the stage spokesman, in the absence of lyrics, one’s eyes wander around the stage constantly, taking in the subtle exchanges between the members, the explosive solos. If anything, Barr tends to melt discreetly into the background, though his bass and electric guitar are ever-present.

GettheBlessing05Up front are Jake McMurchie on saxophone and Pete Judge on trumpet – arresting, emotive, triumphant. They play off each other across the stage, pushing limits as they tinker with electronics, disassemble their instruments, and create fresher sounds. Meanwhile Clive Deamer sits quietly at the back, visibly enjoying himself as he keeps pace on drums – his beats enviable.

In the studio Get the Blessing are polished, pulsing, surprising; live they are engaging, infectious, exciting. Harkening back to the likes of Coltrane and Davis, they weave hypnotic grooves, transporting the listener into another realm, raising and lowering the pulse with the pluck of a string. This is music that tugs at the soul.

One can feel the pain and longing in the haunting refrains of ‘Yes I Said I Will’ and ‘The Unnameable’, and be rattled into alertness via the pulsing ‘Einstein Action Figures’. GettheBlessing03Kudos too for the sustained audience participation clapping with ‘OCDC’. The evening closed with the public debut of new track ‘Monkfish’, another stomper.

Moving On Music deserve a round of applause for their superb programme for this year’s Brilliant Corners festival, and one hopes we’ll see a fourth round in 12 month’s time. Robert J E Simpson, GiggingNI.com