Alton Ellis is known as the Godfather of rocksteady and reggae and it quickly became clear at his performance at Camden’s Jazz Cafe that the reason for this may well be no simpler than that he actually fathered god — he is that good. In his early seventies now, almost old enough to have made the previous statement believable, Alton Ellis has been recording and singing live for six decades. Having not seen Alton before, his age seemed a predicament especially considering the Jamaican tendency for herbal self-medication… images of a bong beaten rasta, raving about Jah and riding off his name within the reggae circus lingered a little. Luckily, Alton’s always been more of a loverman and his style and vigour pre-dates most of the cliche we think of when “reggae” skanks our way.
So Alton, backed by a small band including a brass section, got up and went on to cut it up for the next hour and half. He put out a diverse set, understandable considering the span of his career, nevertheless, this was less a greatest hits parade and more a mixture of jewels, uncut diamonds and bric a brac that Alton explained was pertinent to our times. The jewels included “(Girl) I’ve Got A Date” and “Rocksteady” both of which still seem to carry that woozy melody and rhythm capable of swaying anyone within earshot. Much of this mercurial ability to set everyone at ease of course comes from Alton’s voice and although some of the higher notes maybe missing now his voice is still the place the birds and the bees flock to collect their honey.
His voice is still the place the birds and the bees flock to collect their honey.
After a brief interlude in which the band played a Skatalites cover, Alton returned in a new suit and hat. The sharpness of his clothes reflected the overall quiet intensity that his voice and demeanour reflected. The change of clothes also brought a modification in style as Alton chose to sing some older songs, think 1950s, think small hall and the last dance, and imagine slowly shuffling around with your partner as a guy with slick back hair gently croons with a jazz band and your getting some way to understanding the mood. Alton also changed the focus inviting a younger member of his family to take centre stage. ‘Little’ Alton, epitomised all the smoothness of the real Alton and went on to sing some sinewing love songs as Alton joined him on backing vocals or danced while the younger had his time. Love songs were the plat du jour for the night. With Alton who’s always betrayed a politically conscious attitude — there were a number of times where he stopped to explain how certain songs had brought wealth to poor periods and areas in Jamaica — the love songs at times become indirectly political in so much as they instruct us to forget about everything negative within society leaving us to freely concentrate on everything good about society and for Alton Ellis that is generally dancing in the moonlight and kissing your baby.
Looking around me, this ended up being one of those gigs where you wished you could have bottled the vibe and atmosphere within the arena for future consumption. As Alton left the stage most of us stood there thinking we had just laid witness to a prophet and that hell, it would be nice if we all had even just an inch of Alton’s cool.