When I originally heard that DJ Spoony was curating a night of UK garage backed by a 36-piece orchestra at the Barbican, I was in Thailand surrounded by hostile monkeys. The news provoked such intense feelings of joy and nostalgia that I immediately sought out a rum and pineapple, downloaded whatever half-baked compilation that Twice as Nice had wheeled out and had an impromptu rave outside my hut. For those of us who came of age with this music, years spent manically twirling and bouncing like hyperactive string puppets, this event felt monumental: the Barbican endorsement was validating a genre that had long suffered from serious PR issues and gunshot headlines; the orchestra was, some might argue, providing a kind of legitimacy that had always escaped garage (and is only now gracing her little cousin grime) and we could dance, unfettered by the usual sticky floors, while taking regular breaks for ice cream and Côte de Provence Rose. My belief, as I weaved and dodged Thailand’s obese flies and pizza-sized spiders, was that this concert would trump all garage nights that had come before it. My discovery, however, was that 90s UK garage was already perfect.
At first the novelty of hearing an acoustic garage song drew you in. The first track, ‘Think About Me’ by Artful Dodger featured no lead vocalist, just backing vocalists beautifully layering the harmonies. In quick succession – most sets were around five minutes – ageless garage superstars like Kele Le Roc (singing ‘My Love’ and ‘Things We Do For Love’) paraded their impressive wares. And the orchestra, conducted by Katie Chatburn, was getting well into the groove. True, they couldn’t quite drop the baseline for MC Neat’s ‘A Little Bit Of Luck’, but my imagination dropped it for them (and threw in a slut drop for good measure). By the time that Lifford Shillingford performed ‘Gabriel’ with the soaring tones of an Atlanta pastor (accompanied by DJ Spoony on trombone), I had fully transported myself back to a corner of Ministry of Sound, circa 1998. Each perfectly executed song sent me back to a time when life and music were dirtier and more honest.
DJ Spoony’s palpable excitement for the orchestra was infectious and the musicians showed real talent. Also some of the more soulful tracks helped to tease out the close relationship between UK garage and gospel. But in the end, where I should have felt present and engaged, I instead felt longing. Garage doesn’t need an orchestra, however impressive they were. The transcendent joy of So Solid Crew’s ‘21 Seconds’ doesn’t benefit by replacing a throbbing electric baseline with a rickety rhythm section, and an MC’s tattooed eight-pack is no more resplendent when set against a Barbican backdrop. This reworking and sanitisation of black music – making it sound like the track on a John Lewis advert – isn’t good for garage. Those who weren’t there for the glory days of UK garage will fail to notice why it was so great in the first place.