Roots Manuva @ O2 Ritz, Manchester, 3 Nov
Roots Manuva is an extraordinary lyricist with rare gravity; to see him try to perform through what appears to be a serious personal crisis is a deeply affecting sight
Walking on to AC/DC’s Back In Black, you get the sense that Chali 2na and Krafty Kuts’ approach to warming up a crowd is going to lean towards tributes to the past and a general good-time, block party feeling. Through Do This For You and Outspoken, Chali 2na’s distinctive, round baritone flows with precision and poise, and his ability to place words right in the pocket are matched by Krafty Kuts' skillful scratching passages.
Through a medley of old-school classics – paying homage variously to Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep and Dr Dre, then to Kurtis Blow and Michael Jackson, before switching somewhat incongruously to a drum ‘n’ bass section – Chali’s years of experience working crowds clearly shows. Though his style may be a little wholesome for some tastes, Chali’s skill shines through on the final selection of Jurassic 5 favourites. Closing with veritable classic Concrete Schoolyard, he clearly still holds a real love for his craft.
Hindsight is often 20/20, and with tonight’s compère stressing the fact that Rodney Smith, aka Roots Manuva, has made it this far through 2017 without cancelling a show, this should maybe have been taken as a warning. During opening selections Who Goes There? and Here We Go Again, the slightly shambling, hazy feeling of disconnection that runs through so much of Smith’s back catalogue seems to be being performed too literally, and a feeling of tension quickly spreads through the venue.
Delays between songs kill any momentum and Smith seems to have only a loose grasp of where he is. Sound problems dog Facety 2:11 and Like A Drum, and as Smith loses track during Movements and Dreamy Days, though apologetic he looks visibly agitated and distressed. Backing singers Alexandra Watson and Ricky Ranking do their absolute best to help Smith carry on, and their solo turns, taking a gutsy reggae number each, receive the warmest response of the evening.
Songs are evidently stuck off the setlist, and the crowd is split between those who feel cheated and those still urging Smith to get it together. After leaving the stage – apparently unexpectedly – after Colossal Insight, he’s coaxed on back again, somewhat ironically, for Witness The Fitness. When delivering a verse well, Smith is an extraordinary lyricist with a voice that has a rare gravity and depth, but tonight it’d be hard to argue that he was fit to be in front of an audience.
To see an artist of great talent try to perform through what appears to be a serious personal crisis, where there is no doubt a larger context of contributing factors, is a strange and deeply sad thing to behold. Hopefully Rodney Smith can find the strength, with or without whatever help is on offer, to show us again what he’s capable of. Hopefully soon.