Thursday’s show at the ABC provided a relatively rare opportunity to see arguably the biggest name in UK hip-hop live on stage. Six albums deep and nearly two decades on from his seminal debut LP Brand New Second Hand, does the troubled but brilliant Rodney Smith still have the chops to thrill a crowd?
Before we get an answer to that question we’re treated to a rousing warm up from Brighton breaks legend Krafty Kuts and Jurassic 5 MC Chali 2na. The duo provide an unashamedly fun-loving old school hip-hop bonanza, featuring new collaborations, classic cuts from the J5 back catalogue and possibly the most elaborate hip-hop karaoke medley I’ve ever seen as they blaze through minute-long segments of classics from Wu-Tang, Dr Dre and a host of other genre luminaries. As cheesy as the antics are with the usual “hands in the air” crowd participation shenanigans, the performance couldn’t be tighter and it’s impossible not to enjoy the exuberant combination of cuts, scratches and rhymes.
Without so much as a quarter hour to grab a pint at the bar, Roots Manuva’s band take the stage with the customary fan-fare, hyping the crowd for the arrival of Roots himself, who joins them a few minutes later, clearly significantly worse for wear. Manuva has a reputation for patchy shows marred by intoxication and unfortunately tonight is one of those occasions; most of the performance sees him looking despondent or confused, wandering off stage for significant periods and failing to even sing for some of the songs.
The band do a commendable job of holding things together, attempting to coax Rodney into performing his duties and covering for him when he flounders, but ultimately the result feels more like seeing a well rehearsed Manuva cover-band than the genuine article. Having seen him at his best back in 2005 at the same venue, this performance feels all the more disappointing; where previously he was energetic, cogent and funny, tonight he cuts a tragic figure, seemingly an unhappy man with no desire to be where he is.
Much of Manuva’s best work in the studio draws on his own struggles, combining a gift for wordplay and interesting musical compositions with a uniquely honest insight. Such personal songs deserve an energetic and personal performance, and sadly this one just didn’t do the material justice at all.
For more on Roots Manuva and his tour click here.