The Outlook Orchestra review – a glorious symphonic soundclash

Strings and brass meet the cream of bass music old and new for Outlook festival’s 10th birthday

Britain styles itself as a small island, punching well above its landmass in musical influence. Spare a thought, then, for Jamaica, whose culture of sound systems, and its singers and toasting MCs, can be heard in everything from the rawest of east London grime to Justin Bieber’s recent restyle into “tropical pop”.

Bieber is not on hand tonight to sing with the 20-piece drum’n’bass-inclined Outlook Orchestra, led by Tommy Evans, who runs a brace of dub-themed organisations (Submotion Orchestra, Gentlemen’s Dub Club). But a dizzying array of MCs and vocalists are, for a 100-minute, nonstop, genre-juggling performance that has people dancing in the aisles almost from the get-go.

Literally skipping to the top of the guest list is the spring-heeled Dawn Penn, an ageless 65, whose track You Don’t Love Me (No No No) is surely one of the most potent gateway drugs an uptight reggae neophyte could ever wish to sample. Clad tonight in a sparkly top and headscarf, she is backed by a frankly amazing ensemble of players: five people on blaring brass, half a dozen on strings, three on percussion. A solid core of guitar bass and keys provides backbone, plus the dons of UK dub – Mad Professor and On-U Sound’s Adrian Sherwood – issue “piao!” noises from banks of gear at the back. If it sounds like overkill for what is a calm and spacious song, it is not. The orchestra know when to ebb, and when to flow. “I’ll do anything you say, boy,” croons Penn, and the brass answer her lubriciously.

It has often been said that – thanks to the giant shuffle function that is the internet – music now exists in a continuous, ahistorical flow. No one cares overmuch when or where anything was made – it is all up for grabs, thanks to playlisting and the magpie plundering of era and genre. This 10th anniversary celebration of Outlook, an annual summer festival of bass music – normally held on the Istrian peninsula, on Croatia’s Adriatic coast – puts skanking flesh on that very phenomenon on this wintry London night. Here, New York hip-hop segues into an abundance of 90s jungle, while UK garage – Jenna G covering MJ Cole – segues into the now-ness of grime. Roll Deep founder Flowdan and Killa P reel off their standout track with The Bug – Skeng – to a dramatic backdrop; east London’s Newham Generals remain impressively hard on Hard, despite the presence of a conductor. Never mind what’s happening on stage; oh, to be a fly on the wall backstage at this rolling buffet that ends with Penn but begins with Queens rapper Pharoahe Monch, whose menacing blast from 1999, Simon Says, is divinely suited to trumpet, trombone and sax surges.

Parking an orchestra where it doesn’t belong is an all-too-desperate tendency in music, in the hope that a few violins will lift your pedestrian filler out of mediocrity. This is – emphatically – not one of those occasions. Any concerns that the stark appeal of dubstep would be diluted by a surfeit of musicality are mostly unfounded.

The Outlook Orchestra.
The Outlook Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Photograph: Nicola Antonazzo

Does it all go a bit jazz? Well, yes, occasionally. But what could be a very vanilla string section impress with their icy scything; they even stand up, carried away by the rhythm, and pluck ferociously at their instruments. The main drummer, Alastair Thynne, deserves a medal, playing faultless high-speed breakbeats for an hour and a half. Trumpeter Matt Roberts apparently transcribed this often skeletal underground music into a score.

The atmosphere is definitely not one of competition, but on balance, the veteran junglists probably carry the night. The irrepressible General Levy rocks up in a big furry hat, a big furry coat and shades to sing his tune Pull Up, which interpolates plenty of his 90s hit Incredible. Congo Natty appears, unfurling a Haile Selassie banner, accompanied by reggae singers Nãnci and Phoebe, and dedicates his pair of songs to Tenor Fly, who died in 2016.

The night’s excitable MC, Jonathan Scratchley of Gentlemen’s Dub Club, notes that normally, a night like this would require years of planning and all sorts of Arts Council funding; but Evans “put this shit together in three months”. It honestly doesn’t sound, or feel, like it at all.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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