I have a friend who, over the last ten years or so, asks me at least once a year, “Have you seen Afro Celt Sound System live?” to which I answer “no” and he tells me I really must. So when I saw they were playing the Dome it seemed like a good chance to see what he was on about.
The band do not have a support as they play from 8pm till they are kicked off stage with a short 20 minute break in the middle. So for the first set they come on to the stage with a droney sound playing and kick things off with an African female singing solo before the rest of the band join in. More and more layers are added until it’s in full swing with all the ten members playing an eclectic mix of instruments and sounds.
From the start you realise you’re never quite sure what is coming next. Sometimes the stage can clear, leaving one person to do a solo, people switch instruments all the time, sometimes even half way through a song. It makes quite a refreshing change from a lot of the bands I’ve seen recently where the first song sounds exactly like every other song they play.
The first half of the evening’s entertainment is the most diverse with some songs being almost 100% African sounding while others are pure Celtic and a lot of impressive solo slots. They also use this time to do a little speech about how all the members are from all over the planet, they speak multiple languages and how diversity is a good thing that our politicians could learn from. As well as plugging their new album which is available pre-release exclusively on this tour. A lot of their songs, the ones with lyrics, have a political or social message. Be it about slavery, migration, protest songs and other issues but always done in an upbeat entreating way rather than a sombre rendition.
During the break I was talking to one of the die hard fans who was lamenting past members who are no longer in the band but, from what I saw, it did not really bother me. This band seems more like a collective than a group of individual people that make up a standard band. Freshening things up with a rotation of band members is probably a healthy thing, providing you get the best musicians that can perform with the energy needed for one of these shows.
The second half of the set was more what I was expecting from the band. The energy levels went up a lot, the music was punchier with more layers of dirty synths and bass undertones. It built up to the more dance music-inspired classics that they made their name off. Throughout the gig the band genuinely look like they are having as much fun as the audience. The Dome was set up as an all seater affair, I can only presume due to technical reasons and not what they would have ideally wanted. The venue staff had their work cut out stopping people dancing in the isles, I guess it’s a health and safety gone mad reason, though the back of the venue quickly filled up with those that could not stay seated. By the end of the gig just about everyone was up in their seats dancing along as it’s almost impossible not to feel the urge to move to the beats.
The band is not scared of doing a long track and some of them can last up to ten minutes, though never seem to get boring or feeling like they drag on. They slip in a few tracks off the new album that work perfectly well with the rest and act as a great advert for checking it out. At the end of the show, after playing for over two hours, they insist they would love to play for longer but have to jump on the tour bus to head to the next venue. I believe they probably would too but it must take a lot of energy to tour a show like this performing for hours every night.
By the end I am blown away, this is probably one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen quite a few. The diversity of music, light show, performance and pure entertainment on stage is something hard to match. I now see why my friend kept pestering me to see them live.