David Rodigan & The Outlook Orchestra live at Royal Festival Hall, London, 16 April 2022

By David Katz

An ambitious musical spinoff of the now-defunct Outlook Festival, the Outlook Orchestra was founded in 2017 as an entity based at the Royal Festival Hall, Britain’s most prestigious concert venue, to enact orchestral recreations of bass music and electronica. The renowned broadcaster, actor, and longstanding Jamaican music devotee David Rodigan MBE OD was the obvious choice to front its reggae incarnation and the 2017 debut Festival Hall concert with Rodigan at the helm is still fresh in my mind, such was the innovative nature of the format, the musical competency of the Orchestra, and the integration of noteworthy guests. I have since seen the Orchestra perform at Rototom Sunsplash, which was just a little less impressive, since the musicians were truncated and the acoustics not so great, with some of the instruments a bit muted in the mix, especially when the wind blew in certain directions. Therefore, I had a lot of anticipation for this return to RFH, with its excellent acoustics and top spatial arrangement, which allows for optimal viewing and listening throughout the venue.

After a brief introduction from Rodders, who would return to the mic at regular intervals to give context to the proceedings, the 21-piece orchestra launched into the Skatalites’ “Guns Of Navarone” at a galloping pace, followed swiftly by an animated “Phoenix City,” before Bitty McLean leapt out to deliver an up-tempo rendition of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Simmer Down.” He was gone in a flash, but the action never dropped as Hollie Cook sauntered out to deliver a cheeky take of Millie Small’sMy Boy Lollipop,” injecting a dose of babe factor in her coquettish moves, singing with a big broad smile that proved infectious.

The rock steady section began with a tasteful take of Desmond Dekker’s “007,” tackled by the Orchestra’s male backing vocalist, who also offered his version of Alton Ellis’ “I’m Still In Love.” By the time Bitty McLean returned to give us his best-known opus, a reggae version of David Ruffin’s “Walk Away From Love,” the excellence of the Orchestra’s bass player was heightened, and the harmony vocals were sounding especially sweet; Bitty’s take of “Dancing Mood” had a great trumpet solo by Matt Roberts, co-arranger of the Orchestra’s musical scores, and female backing vocalist Charlene Linton gave a decent take of Phyllis Dillon’s “Perfidia,” the soft strings introduction shifting the focus of the tune.

Things stepped up to a higher gear when we hit the roots reggae phase. Kiko Bun gave us likable renditions of Junior Murvin’s “Police And Thieves” and Bob Marley’s “Sun Is Shining,” and then the congas kicked in for a killer cut of the Abyssinians’ “Satta Massaganna,” delivered with aplomb by Bitty McLean, who gave us a few toasting lines mid-way through before the horn section blasted us into musical oblivion.

Horace Andy then took the stage to hit us with “Skylarking” while in a trance-like state, followed by “Natty Dread A Whe She Want” (with altered lyrics as “Rastaman A Whe She Want,” since there are too many ‘fashion dreads’ these days, according to Horace), upping the ante with heavy takes of “Money Money” and a fine rendition of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the latter with emotive string accompaniment.

Saluting Jamaica’s dub pioneers, the Orchestra then launched into a hefty dub track that allowed us to revel in the awesome musicianship on stage and the fine rapport that conductor Tommy Evans has established with them; the packed venue had been on their feet since the get go and everyone was really rocking to the dub’s pulsating rhythm.

Moving into the dancehall zone, after a few bars of Ini Kamoze’s “World A Reggae,” Kiko Bun came back for a somewhat out-of-place take of Marlon Asher’s “Ganja Famer,” and onto a swift version of Sanchez’s “I Can’t Wait,” this time with peppy xylophone notes. Conroy Smith’sDangerous” got the singalong treatment, and then the MC/drummer Horseman took the stage for his beloved “Horse Move,” followed by further singalongs in Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” and Beenie Man’s “Who Am I.”

Then, after a moving instrumental take of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” led by a plaintive soprano sax, we were treated to an unexpected guest appearance by Freddie McGregor, looking dapper in a Mohican buzz-cut, with a killer take of “Big Ship” with emphasis on keyboards, xylophone, and strings, closing things off with a sprightly rendition of “Push Comes To Shove.”

From my perspective, there is plenty to appreciate about the Outlook Orchestra, because although the format is aimed at a maximal audience who may not necessarily be so familiar with the music, reggae heads like myself will always find something new to hear in the arrangements, which allows us to absorb the music we love with new ears. And by allowing the audience to dance down the front, or throughout the venue, the experience became more joyful and interactive, and once again, the top-notch acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall allowed us to hear every note with crystal clarity.

If you have not already experienced the Orchestra, I wholeheartedly recommend that you do so; there was a beautiful energy in the room on this occasion, leaving everyone beaming at the end of the night.