Music: Little Roy performs Battle for Seattle at Scala

Reggae covers can be a strange fruit. You’d be surprised what works. Take The Wailer’s What’s New Pussycat? As a Reggae fan who thinks that everyone’s outlook can be improved with a little reggae in their life, i’m unlikely ever to hate anything twinged with a rocksteady flavour, even if the result is laughable.

So naturally then, I thought that an album of Nirvana covers by dancehall elder and lesser-known ‘Roy’ of the reggae scene Little Roy was, well, inspired. But you can’t say it’s not a little bit bemusing.

On the surface, it might appear that the knife-edge of the songs that chronicle Cobain’s pain and bitterness is blunted by a ska beat, but as a Rastafarian, Little Roy’s music is a message of rebellion in the face of social and political oppression, so it’s not all that incongruous. Cobain rejected Babylon just as much as any Rastaman.

The impression is also that while UK producer and sound engineer Mike “Prince Fatty” Pelanconi is deadly serious about this project, Little Roy is having a little fun with it. As he sings Polly (Let me take a ride / Hurt yourself / Want some help / Help myself / Got some rope), he beams from ear to ear. No angst here. When he took off his hat, whipping out his dreads in one slick tenticle-like movement, almost in a salutation to Rastafari, he was for a moment the very antithesis of Cobain; a confident presence on stage, comfortable in his body.

Cobain’s acerbic lyrics sound quite astonishing when sung live in a way they don’t quite sound on the album (released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Nevermind). It’s partly the addition of the anti-grunge stage presence; the RnB-style shoop-shoop choreography of the backing singers, the drummer dressed as a Chinaman. Some of the songs work remarkably well, for example Lithium and Heart-Shaped Box. Some feel like they’ve been left in for reference, as a testament to the effort of the artists involved to meet these two styles in the middle somewhere.

This is a project the artists involved can be proud of. It’s found a niche that deserves to be deepened. Little Roy performs Cobain’s songs with obvious affection and there’s not a hint of reggae karaoke about it. Judging by the crowd, it’s got a thumbs up from the Nirvana fans. But like I said, anything ragga is good by me.

Little Roy performs Battle for Seattle: Scala, Kings Cross, 17 November

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