Report: Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in Belfast

By Gerry McMahon

Despite its troubled past, Belfast is a welcoming city. Steeped in its own roots and culture issues, it also throws a mighty good party. And that’s exactly what the large crowd did for Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s return to the capital city of Northern Ireland on Saturday, May 7th last. The party-tone was set by Belfast 8 piece band The Vibes, who provided a tasty opener, with an hour’s blend of ska and reggae sounds.

Lee Perry &  the Upsetters

In his 80th year, the legend Perry was the headline act on the 10th night of the 17th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. The festival hosted a stellar line up of musical icons, including Grandmaster Flash, Courtney Pine and John Cooper Clarke, together with an extensive range of theatrical and artistic spectacles.

Perry’s mood was superb. From his arrival on site to post-show exchanges, his warmth and humour were on display. Performing for over an hour, the show hinged on (the 40th anniversary of) the Super Ape album. However, this did not constrain the artist from conjuring curious lyrics for some old classics. From ‘‘I am an African Obeah man” and “Bless life up” to “Have Some Mercy”, Perry had plenty to say as he jauntily led the show. At one point he even claimed “sightings of Mickey Mouse”, to whom he bore an uncanny resemblance in his colourful tight ensemble!

Lee Perry Belfast-10The show also featured some classics from his protégé Bob Marley. This sparked Perry’s zany screeching and growling to the rhythm of Crazy Baldhead, which took a jazz turn at one point, with the bearded Ryan Sutherland tinkling the ivories to good effect. ‘Police and Thieves’ also got a look in before the show ended with a rousing rendition of Exodus, set to Perry’s very own lyrics.

Writing his second biography on Belfast’s music legend Van Morrison, writer Johnny Rogan notes Morrison’s powerful combination of voice, music and words. Alas, the words were always by far the weakest of those three Morrison components. In Perry’s case, the weak link is the voice.

This is where the Upsetters kick in. In their current format the Upsetters are comprised of Jah Poleon (bass), Michael Fellowes (lead), Ryan Sutherland (synth.) and Sinclair Seales (drums). Their instrumental effects and appropriate harmonies ensure that Mr. Perry can glide into his own orbit and they’re never far behind. In truth – as seasoned practitioners – they’re probably far ahead!

Having reached 80 years of age, Mr. Perry shows little sign of relenting. Some even say he was seen smoking marijuana on stage! Well, whatever about that, he was certainly drinking champagne after show time. And why wouldn’t he?

Long live Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry!