An unseasonably warm and sunny April evening set the scene perfectly for Dreadzone to play the intimate Forum in Tunbridge Wells. This Dub-reggae based group fuse all sorts of genres from dub to dance through to folk and rock with a sprinkle of classical thrown in.
Prior to the gig groups of people were spread out across the common beneath the trees, relaxing, chatting, and laughing in the dappled sunlight outside the venue which nestles at the base of the common. Everything seemed right with the world, especially as it was a Friday.
Formerly public toilets, The Forum was converted to a music venue 25 years ago. Ironically that’s the same number of years since the formation of Dreadzone back in 1993, so it was a double celebration.
Once the doors were flung open, the warm up – not that anyone needed any more warming – was in the capable hands of DJ Matty Dread who spun some sweet reggae sounds to get everyone in the mood. The man knew his stuff and the people reciprocated in kind to the music.
The crowd inside seemed quite sparse still, although it was a sell out gig, the idyllic spring evening keeping people from rushing in too quickly. Who can blame them, there was snow around only one month previously and the evening ahead was going to be a little sweaty no doubt.
Greg Roberts, drummer and founder of Dreadzone and ex Big Audio Dynamite, could be seen mingling with the first people to arrive. That’s the feeling you get from this band, very accessible and fan friendly. They are just regular people who connect with their followers. It’s a real family affair, very grass roots. Greg even plays a fortnightly Facebook live DJ session on the Dreadzone page where it is possible to interact with him.
There is also Leo Williams (also ex BAD) on bass, newest member Bazil on technology/mixing, and front of house is the enigmatic MC Spee. An irresistible tour de force.
One of the family is absent tonight, however. Legendary reggae singer Earl 16 always has lots of other commitments and projects, so occasionally misses a gig. Although sorely missed for his smooth as silk vocals the band are so tight the gap isn’t as wide as it should be.
The venue is still only half full as the intro music begins building to a crescendo, as the lights dim and the band take to the stage. But the place is soon packed as the crowd pour in. By rights, this angled semi-circle of a room which is three times the length of its width shouldn’t have the great acoustics it produces but the high ceiling helps along with the exposed brick construction. This place is very inviting with a cool, covered chillout area to the side.
With a capacity of just 250 and a stage little more than two feet high you are right in the face of the band. This isn’t something that normally fazes such a worldly wise outfit, they’ve been there, seen it, done it, but as the first track Rootsman’s heavy bass intro kicks in, courtesy of Leo ‘Eezy Kill’ Williams’ thumping four string, they seem a little bit like rabbits caught in headlights, a little unsure.
Rootsman is from their latest offering and eighth studio album, Dread Times. This fuses perfectly into Life Love And Unity from their seminal second LP, Second Light, and as Spee so eloquently puts it in his South London drawl: “This is our mantra !”
This is bouncing driving dub with a strong spiritual message. Spee, who is seated on a bar stool throughout due to a knee operation, wields his walking stick like a conductor with a baton. Substitute orchestra for crowd and soon enough he has you in the palm of his hand. His light-hearted banter in between tracks makes you feel part of their set too. All welcome, all inclusive. He gets upset if you don’t respond and encourages everyone.
Two more follow from 2017’s album Dread Times, a peaceful call to arms with deep funky keyboards called Rise Up which you can’t help but move to, followed by Mountain which digs deep emotionally and lyrically into the psyche, dealing with inner demons but giving hope of a way out. Spee excels here, he really feels it, you can see his pain. He’s been there and you believe him.
I Know is a dirty little skanking number from Once Upon a Time in Jamaica which is a favourite with the crowd. “The Bouncing Crew”, as MC Spee calls them, are the hardcore fans who do exactly that, along with almost everyone else. He demands to know if any Dread virgins are in the house tonight to make them feel at home.
Gangster is next. These tunes are relentless, no time to stop and take breath. This in particular is poignant. After all the recent knife crime in London the sample from the film The Long Good Friday in the track sits perfectly with the lyrics “So you wanna be a gangster, do you think that is the answer?” Quite superb. Everyone laps it up.
Now the place is jumping, the tentative start forgotten. The band and crowd now have an understanding, it’s a reciprocal thing, you feel part of something truly unique. Now I know why their reputation follows them. It’s not just a gig, it’s an event, a rite of passage.
All the while Leo grooves away relatively unnoticed, leaving Spee to take the plaudits, he and Greg the heartbeat driving the band on. Greg’s expressions on the drum kit cover such a myriad of facial contortions. you wonder if he might pass out in a flurry of beats but all the while his hands just seem to caress his instruments. Each member commands the eye in their craft but many in the crowd are too wrapped up the music to take notice. I look around at the audience often too. Smiling faces abound, people in their own world, others catch the eye and smile in return. There’s a lot of love in the room.
Covering the subject of gun crime with 16 Hole, they morph seamlessly into Black Deus. A dark piece of work with a mean electronic break, it’s peppered with spoken word calling for more peaceful uprising. “This country has become non-functional for the people. The oppressor has no right,” the powerful samples inform us, while Earl 16’s recorded vocals loop over with: “Freedom.. it really matters.” You can’t help but be won over.
Things take a lighter turn in American Dread. More spoken word samples from the great singer songwriter Woody Guthrie this time and Spee takes the song to the crowd. “Music come from your heart,” he tells them. It’s a flag- and banner-waving epic. Hands wave from side to side. Greg often stands on his drum kit waving and encouraging the crowd or pumping fists.
Dancehall Priority and Digital Mastermind send the bpm higher, the crowd follow and so does the temperature. ‘The Bouncing Crew’ are in full effect, you can’t help but move.
Two classics from Second Light, also one of John Peel’s favourite albums, set the tone for the end of their set. Zion Youth is classic Dreadzone. Spee fills in Earl’s vocals with aplomb as he does with their most famous track and the only one to hit the Top 40 back in 1996, Little Britain. I challenge anyone not to feel uplifted by this wonderful piece. Classical music samples in the form of Carl Orff’s Auf Dem Anger -Tanz are used quite brilliantly in this track, coupled with lyrics “This is our land, this is your land, this is our inheritance, to lead you on a merry dance. Dance on the land and celebrate.” No one needs any more encouragement. It’s a good job the ceiling is high as the bouncing hits heights never reached this evening.
The band leave the stage, surely no encore could beat that?
The crowd bay and whistle as is the norm but with extra fervour. They have been whipped into a frenzy and demand more and understandably so.
Penultimate track Music Army is mainly an instrumental number from Dread Times. T-shirts with this emblazoned on are peppered around the Forum and are surely a reference to the strong following Dreadzone have rightly attracted through the last decade and a half. Although a relatively new track, it is embraced like an old friend.
The crowning glory is another endorphin-releasing wonder in the folk-tinged Captain Dread. Referencing the old Fruit Pastilles advert where they say if you eat one you’ve “Gotta chew”, if you attend a Dreadzone gig you’ve just “Gotta bounce!”, if only to this track. A dodgy analogy but the most descriptive I can muster.
They came, they struck and left a Forum filled with sweat, love, and respect. I encourage anyone who has never seen this band live to add it to their bucket list forthwith…
Photography by Simon Partington & Live Review by Ian A. Smith. of Dreadzone at The Forum, Tunbridge Wells on 20th April 2018