Gig Review: The Great Voices of Soul – London, Wembley Arena

On Sunday Haff was present at the soul gig of the year: the Great Voices of Soul show live at Wembley Arena, four hours of great soul music from seven top soul acts.  

It’s been about five months since it was announced that Patti LaBelle, the Godmother of Soul, would finally be making her return to the UK after a ten-year absence. She had been due to perform alongside James Ingram in March, but those plans were put on hold as she competed in on Dancing With The Stars in the States. Yet, as Ms Patti told us in our exclusive interview earlier on this year, she had been itching to get back to performing in the UK. It was then announced that none other than legends The Whispers, The SOS Band, Gwen Dickey, Meli’sa Morgan, plus British soul icons Soul II Soul, and Loose Ends’ Carl McIntosh would join her.

Despite this incredible line-up, Wembley Arena on Sunday was less than full. In fact, the rear stand had been closed, and a curtain erected to hide the empty seats. Given the line-up and promotion, it was undoubtedly disappointing that tickets were not sold, potentially the result of the high-ticket prices, although of course that did reflect the cost of the acts on stage. Nevertheless, those in attendance were largely in good spirits, buoyed by the DJ playing nothing but eighties funk grooves.

Loose Ends’ Carl McIntosh, or as he bills himself, The Loose Ends Experience feat. Carl McIntosh, had the unenviable task of opening the show. Flanked by two backing singers, McIntosh performed for around fifteen minutes to a backing track. Certainly, a live band behind him would have sounded better, but McIntosh and his singers were pleasant to hear, and their dance moves pleasant to watch. They closed their set with two classics, the infectious ‘Slow Down’, and their worldwide megahit, ‘Hanging On A String’, the latter of which sent the audience in the floor seats into a mild frenzy.

Soon as McIntosh and company left the Wembley stage, Gwen Dickey was, quite literally, wheeled out. Apologising for her “limousine entrance”, Dickey suffers from a spinal injury, she launched straight into Rose Royce’s funk masterpiece ‘Is It Love You’re After’. Again, Dickey appeared with no band, backed by a re-make of the song which lacked some of the finer nuances of the Rose Royce sound. That said, Dickey has lost none of the power in her voice, and she delivered a fine rendition of the song to the delight of the Rose Royce fans in the audience. She was only afforded two more songs: a rendition of the beautiful ‘Wishing On A Star’, and naturally, ‘Car Wash’, the latter sending the audience into another frenzied state.

The final act to appear with backing tracks was Meli’sa Morgan, who was most impressive out of these opening three acts. Morgan, dressed in the most incredibly sparkly dress, possesses a fabulous voice. Indeed, while Morgan may not be as well known this side of the Atlantic as other artists on the stage, she held her own and actually stole the opening of the show. Moreover, even though she was performing to backing tracks, hers seemed better produced than Dickeys and McIntosh’s, giving her performance a better overall sound. Morgan, who has new music out, chose to give the crowd the classics, including a flawless rendition of ‘Do Me Baby’, and the funky ‘Fool’s Paradise’ where she hit the top notes with ease. At the end, the crowd were on their feet when Morgan suggested that she had better bring her full show over the UK in the near future.

With three acts down it was time for British superstars Soul II Soul to take to the stage. Unlike some performances that Soul II Soul do, leader Jazzie B had set out the full band set up, complete with drummer, guitarist, bassist, violinists and three excellent backing vocalists whose moves were tiring to those of us sitting down. Most delightfully was the presence of Caron Wheeler – present on several of Soul II Soul’s biggest hits – on lead vocals. To sum up Soul II Soul’s performance, only one word is needed: stunning. In the half hour they were given to perform, the crowd barely sat down, with the group recreating their hits superbly on the big stage. Jazzie B’s rap ‘Get A Life’ was followed in quick succession by the group’s two megahits: ‘Keep On Movin’’ and the fabulous ‘Back To Life (However Do You Want Me)’. Hearing Wheeler back with Soul II Soul on these songs that she helped make popular was a real treat.

The excitement continued – ten minutes and a change of band later – when eighties funk outfit The SOS Band took to the stage. As a side note, as with many groups in soul and funk, there are two versions of The SOS Band; the one appearing at Wembley is arguably the one most legitimate, featuring original lead vocalist Mary Davis and trumpeter Abdul Ra’oof, plus long term members of the group. Now the name Mary Davis might not be that familiar to you, but trust us: she is one of the great voices of soul. Her voice, on all the hits of the SOS Band, remains as funky and soulful as ever. The group opened up with ‘High Hopes’ before turning the funk level up a notch with the tasty ‘Just The Way You Like It’. Their performance was stunning: the guitarist deserves much praise for his shredding ability, the horns sounded tight, and their incredible female drummer (a rarity in music generally) was outstanding, as well as possessing one of the most astonishing afros of all time. Again, the SOS Band had just half an hour to perform and the group, quite wisely, chose quality out of quantity, performing about five songs (including a brief cameo from none other than Alexander O’Neal). They closed their set with their big hits, a faultless version of ‘Just Be Good To Me’, and one of the highlights of the night, a seven-minute performance of the epic ‘Take Your Time (Do It Right)’.

Another ten-minute break, complete with dancing to Luther Vandross’ ‘Never Too Much’ over the loudspeakers, it was the turn of The Whispers to entertain the London crowd. In terms of set openers, few songs can match the excitement of their 1979 smash ‘And The Beat Goes On’. The Whispers – consisting of Wallace and Walter Scott plus Levail Degree (Nicholas Caldwell is recovering from a serious heart scare) – plus their outstanding band, consisting of four keyboardists no less, are a top act both on record and in performance, yet for some reason it took until their set closer, the UK favourite ‘It’s A Love Thing’, before the crowd really showed their appreciation. Which is slightly odd, considering the epic performance they put in. The group performed songs like ‘Let’s Go All The Way’, ‘Olivia’, ‘Keep On Loving Me’, ‘In The Raw’, and ‘Rock Steady’, yet the response seemed a little tepid. And that’s a shame considering how well the group performed.

Then, after a twenty minute break, it was the turn of the Godmother of Soul Ms Patti LaBelle to make her London return. Given the anticipation of her rare performance, it must be said the sound was somewhat disappointing. That is in no way a criticism of Ms Patti, whose voice remains one of the wonders of the world, but instead a criticism of the sound technicians who failed to adjust her microphone when she, quite frequently, hit those high notes, meaning that she sounded more screechy as the microphone was clearly too loud. Fortunately some adjustments were made by the time Ms Patti launched into her eighties classic ‘On My Own’, a duet originally sung with Michael McDonald. When the sound levels were right – as they were on the ballads ‘If Only You Knew’ and the delightful ‘Love, Need and Want You’ – Ms Patti sounded great, but too often the sound was simply too loud and too messy. Yet, it was still a delight to hear Ms Patti perform. She’s wickedly funny, a good dancer, and overall a consummate performer. By the time the end of her scheduled set was due to end, she carried on unabashed by those waving her offstage, instead saying ‘Take your time, Patti.’ After her funky rendition of the classic seventies soul jam ‘Lady Marmalade’, the management at Wembley turned on the houselights in an attempt to usher her offstage. Yet, Ms Patti was having none of it, and went into a brief rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’, before her band left her alone on stage to soak up the applause of the audience, before they ran off to catch the last Jubilee Line train back into central London.

Overall, the Great Voices of Soul was a success, despite some issue with ticket sales. The choice of headliner Patti LaBelle was an inspired one, but given her desire to do her own thing unrestricted, it might make more sense for Ms Patti to perform a solo date in London, so she can do what she wants for how long she wants. But we love Ms Patti, and we love all the acts on the stage in London, and we hope they don’t leave it so long until their next visits.

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1 year ago
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George Haffenden
Written by George Haffenden
Brought up on a healthy diet of soul and funk, Haff's dream was to become the first British member of The Temptations. Realising that this dream could never be realised, he is now the curator of The Funk & Soul Revue.