A warm July Saturday afternoon in Bristol finds an exodus of people from all of over the city – and surrounding region no doubt – heading towards Harbourside to witness an until-recently unprecedented show. Many are university students, but groups of middle-aged people, parents with young children, and attendees who definitely belong in the over-60s age bracket can also be spotted. Tickets were sold out weeks before: this was something to see.
Later at the appointed hour, the picturesque Colston Hall outdoor arena begins to shows signs of activity. I am standing next to my partner-in-dancing-crime, both of us excited to see how the live performance of a drum n bass album that had had a massive impact on us 20 years previous, turns out. I am of course talking about Goldie’s 1995 studio album Timeless. Bumping into him before the show we were only given an enigmatic “You’ll see, you’ll see,” in response to our interrogations about it. Our curiosity is peaking.
And yet I remember the hot summer of ‘95 in London, a summer of dancing, and sweating and more dancing. Its soundtrack was a re-vitalised drum n bass – a new branch of the well-established tree that was UK electronic dance music. It had significantly moved away from the bass-heavy grooves of jungle to a lighter, beat-driven and lushly vocaled experience. Fabio and LTJ Bukem’s Speed at the Mars Bar and Goldie’s Metalheadz Sunday Sessions at the Blue Note were staple parts of my underground music diet, the scene’s producers were churning out tracks like sonic pioneers and and the dj’s were mixing them like gods: raving was bliss. Goldie was already a well-known charismatic figure on the scene and we were all aware of his signing to FFRR and consequent album deal. Little did we know though how much it would affect the game; it can be said without a doubt that there was a before and after to the release of Timeless.
What had been a relatively small music scene where afficionados, promoters, producers, emcees and djs alike saluted one another, a scene scattered throughout various cities and towns in the UK, a tribe dedicated to the pleasure and necessity of losing themselves in the crux of this music – our music, changed seemingly overnight. Drum n bass became public; heard in passing cars at all times of the day and on non-pirate radio stations, appearing in the national media, and used for tv adverts and on tv series. All industry salary brackets shifted drastically upwards as producers signed record deals willy-nilly, and djs started playing abroad more frequently, in larger arenas and to a more varied fan-bass.
It is clear that Goldie – the multi-talented and quintessential b-boy – was the front man of this transformation, he ‘flew the flag’ as dj Grooverider said at the time. No-one ever looked back, and to this day drum n bass remains a standard component of UK and global dance music culture.
Surrounded by a stratocumulus-covered cornflower-blue sky the stage in Bristol began to fill as the Heritage Orchestra and conductor Charles Hazelwood took their places. The city’s Nellee Hooper appropriately made an introduction and the show began. As the first notes of ‘Sea of Tears’ descended upon the crowd, seagulls ascended into the sky, as if in honour of the album version of this track, rife with sounds of birds and waves. We heard a melodic, bass and electric guitar-led rendition which closely followed the original; a Spanish-esque gem. As the musicians worked their way through the other songs the omnipresent string section, a friendly antagonist of the drumming and samples, offered grace and colour, whilst the majestic horns replaced computer-generated hoover bass interjections – especially on ‘Angel’ – and made our hips gyrate downwards. Goldie was present on stage, offering live voice samples on ‘Still Life’ his biographical, first drum n bass blues track, and on ‘This Is A Bad’, his offering to dj Randall. Otherwise he was mainly seen dancing in front of the drummer – the best seat of the house for a true raver I’d say. And what a drummer. Clearly a physically-fit man; he was the backbone to the show, leading and maintaining the bpm at a level that would very possibly cause a more-conservative drummer to have a cardiac arrest.
The singer Vanessa Haynes added a 7th dimension to the music on ‘Inner City Life’ – clearly the crowd’s favourite, and on the tender piano ballad ‘You and Me’. Her rich vocals also brought the last track of the night to life, my favourite both on the album and performed live here, ‘Kemistry’ – a deep and powerful tribute to the late dj and individual who first-introduced Goldie to this music.
The level of nostalgia was high for us, but did not override the true quality of the show: the realisation of something that 20 years ago would have been unthinkable. Goldie was, is and will probably always be someone to watch. He has exceptional creative resources, and an uncanny ability to successfully take on any artistic medium and make it into his own canvas.
After all, as he revealed to me recently, he is ‘still finding the black notes’.