Village Underground, from its unassuming entrance round the back of a dirty car park in Shoreditch, opens up into a cavernous, underground space, all cold brick walls and warm bodies. It’s so heavily populated by Aussies in surf gear, it may as well have been sponsored by Rip Curl. The DJ on stage is spinning Bill Withers, and the beers are flowing as smoothly as his soulful voice. It’s the perfect welcome for the band known as Fat Freddy’s Drop.
The sold out surroundings of Village Underground marks a decade of extensive European touring for the Kiwi 7-Piece, and as such is the perfect launch for their third and newest album, Blackbird. Streaming the gig live worldwide on their Youtube channel, there may have been only 500 people in attendance at the venue, but several thousand more vicariously experienced it through their computer monitors.
The clock strikes 9, and with blue lights bathing the stage, the band strode on to the throbbing bassline of Blackbird and raucous cheering from the crowds. The album opener sounded panoramic in the concrete tunnel, and as each member added their own layer of sound, the chamber was filled with their upbeat and infectious melodies.
To the uninitiated, Fat Freddy’s Drop combine unique aspects of dub, reggae and soul music, alongside more jazzy and electronic experimentation. Rooted in the loping rhythms and heavy basslines of dub reggae, the honeyed voice of Joe Dukie rides melodiously over the top. There is no live drummer here, instead, the beats and percussion are provided by producer and DJ Fitchie, who manipulates the band as they play around him. They are best known for their live experimentation, often stretching out tracks and improvising with familiar favourites in manners that are never recreated twice. In fact, their albums are built around them experimenting and refining these live sessions into a cohesive, recorded whole. It comes as no surprise then that their opening salvo on the audience was over 12 minutes long, and with not a dull moment for the duration.
As they launched into the rest of the set, including new single, the guitar-led Clean The House, the musicianship is clear, from the hyperactive horn section’s soloing to the clever arrangements. These guys have been leading the charge for some time in an era where the 3 minute song is becoming more and more antiquated (if Justin Timberlake can do it, anyone can). Then, launching into a classic from their first album, Flashback, the crowd erupts.
The ingenuity of Fat Freddy’s is their ability to layer and pace songs perfectly, even when they’re (quite often) reaching over the 10 minute mark. They know how to add, they know how to take away, and to build tension and suspense for the audience. Sometimes the subtlest manipulation (like warping and delaying Dukie’s voice) is enough; other times, they’ll build a track to breaking point... and then a bit more... before dropping (no pun intended) something as simple as a weighty kickdrum to push the crowd over the edge, as was the case in acid-inflected new cut Never Moving.
Moving through the majority of the new album, Silver and Gold had the whole room skanking, alongside old favourites like The Raft. What’s more, you could just tell how much fun they were having; they were enjoying themselves so much on stage that the joy was infectious, and you couldn’t help but shuffle and jump around. Hopepa, the clownish trombone player, even went full-Madonna and had a costume change midway through: from dapper suit into some turquoise shell suit/terrible 80’s Wimbledon attire, which he then preceded to strip out of across the rest of the set, revealing little more than a headband, knee high socks and a white tee emblazoned with the DANCE. We took our cue.
Having to stop at 11pm was the only real shame of the night, as they clearly could have partied for hours, and they had the songs ready to do it, too. Ending on a full funk freakout that Nile himself would have been proud of, the smiles on the faces of the crowd and the band suggested that the Blackbird really had soared that evening.