mon 29/11/2021

Nu Civilisation Orchestra, What's Going On, Birmingham Town Hall review - bringing a masterpiece to life | reviews, news & interviews

Nu Civilisation Orchestra, What's Going On, Birmingham Town Hall review - bringing a masterpiece to life

Nu Civilisation Orchestra, What's Going On, Birmingham Town Hall review - bringing a masterpiece to life

Marvin Gaye's seminal album performed in full with passion, joy and integrity

Soul and spirit from the Nu Civilisation OrchestraChris Huning

With its themes of racism, violence, oppression and climate change, Marvin Gaye's 1971 album, What's Going On, is as pertinent today as it was when it was released 50 years ago.

Presented by Tomorrow’s Warriors, Nu Civilisation Orchestra played this seminal body of work with all the soul and spirit the record merits, in a performance that was both inherently faithful to the album, but still unique.

Musical Director Peter Edwards – who had expertly arranged Gaye’s music for the group – described their goal as wanting the audience to feel like they were "inside the record". The music was paired with stirring visuals from Yeast Culture, featurings scenes of poverty and inequality in 1970s America, recent Black Lives Matter protests, and devastating vistas of melting polar ice caps. UK soul singer Noel McKoy sang with power and style, completely honouring Gaye’s spirit but bringing his own energy and personality to it with smooth, heartfelt vocals. “Inner City Blues” had a powerful urgency, and “Save the Children” a pleading poignancy. Also invited on stage for this leg of the tour was Birmingham poet and spoken word artist Casey Bailey. In what was an honest and frank love letter to his city, Bailey’s powerful spoken word performance detailed what he loves about Birmingham but also what aggrieved and frustrates him in the city he calls home. 

Giving the music a wash of vibrant colour, the band comprised some truly excellent musicians, perhaps most notably the sax section, with stunning solos heard from Nathaniel Facey on alto, Denys Baptise on tenor, and Rhiannon Dimond on baritone. Conductor Peter Edwards has a crisp, clear beat and his affinity with the music is evident in his leading of it. “What’s Goin On” is a protest album, and its music is desperate and heartfelt. At the same time it is beautiful, hopeful and full of joy, and this joyful energy was infectious in Friday’s show. 

Preceding “What’s Going On” was music from a project Gaye described as his "loveliest". After creating “What’s Going On”, Gaye moved to LA with aspirations of becoming an actor. Though he did secure a part in the film, he was largely ignored by the director, so he spent a lot of time in the back of the camera truck observing the film-making process. This helped inform his composition of the score for the 1972 "blaxploitation" film Trouble Man, which was performed on Friday in a newly arranged suite also by Edwards. This was a splendid mix of musical ideas, McKoy singing with a supple, smooth falsetto and some stellar solos were heard from the band, including some particularly impressive drumming from Noda Oreste and Romarna Campbell. 

This was a fabulous tribute to one of the most important musical works of the last century. Let’s just hope that in 50 years’ time Gaye’s music will still be celebrated, but his message not quite so socially relevant as it still is today.

This was a fabulous tribute to one of the most important musical works of the last century

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