On Wednesday I was fortunate enough to witness a rare live performance from one of the most underrated men in British music. With his band The Pop Group, Mark Stewart pushed barriers and merged genres as they blasted their post-punk protest garage funk and politically-charged sloganeering into the faces of anyone in their way. But thirty years later, does Mark Stewart still have something to say?
The Scala Theatre in Kings Cross, north London is a great small venue, and as the lights dimmed and the backing group started, the scene was set for an entrance fit for a king. Mark Stewart walked onto the stage in a thick overcoat and blowing a whistle. A towering big man still commanding a stage presence after all these years, he has always been fighting battles from the sidelines with anti-capitalist lyrics and tonight was going to be no exception.
The set started with ‘Nothing Is Sacred’ a free download from 2011 about continuing greed in a year that saw riots spread across England, similar to 30 years ago. The backing group of bass, guitar & drums were solid and the lone female soulful backing vocals worked perfectly with Stewart’s half-spoken half sung chants. The sound was perfectly mixed by legendary On-U Sound producer and long-time dub collaborator Adrian Sherwood. What Sherwood brings to the live performance was no better demonstrated on ‘Liberty City’, a track from Mark Stewart + The Maffia’s 1983 debut album Learning to Cope With Cowardice.
The set mainly showcased songs from his latest album, ‘The Politics Of Envy‘ which seamlessly fuses dub, rock and funk with effortless familiarity. ‘Vanity Kills’ is as powerful a protest rock song as anything written by The Pop Group, and for ‘Autonomia’ Stewart was joined on stage by Primal Scream‘s Bobby Gillespie and Andrew Innes to give a powerful rendition of the latest single. ‘Autonomia’ is a song about Carlo Giuliani, an autonomist protestor killed in the 2001 G8 demonstrations in Genoa.
An amazing dub version of the 1987 Mark Stewart + The Maffia single ‘This Is Stranger Than Love’, a love song based on Eric Satie’s ‘Gymnopédie No. 1’ with Sherwood at the controls was truly sublime.
I’ve read that Mark Stewart is a quiet, gentle giant when not performing, but on stage he wadlles around as if marking his territory. That said, he seemed relaxed and to be enjoying the occasion as much as the audience.
For the encore Stewart returned to the stage with bass, guitar and drums to rock out in true Anthrax and Slayer style with a bass-throbbing, head-banging rendition of ‘Hysteria’ from the 1985 album, As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade. But the crowd still wanted more. Apologising they had no more songs to play, Stewart offered another rendition of ‘Autonomia’ complete with Bobby Gilliespie and Andrew Innes, joking they were ‘not trying to promote the single or anything!’.
In 1979 Mark Stewart was at the forefront of the post-punk political protest. In 2012 he may be working further from within the shadows but with his best album to date, he still has a voice to be heard, and he still knows how to give a great live performance.