“J.P. Bimeni, whether consciously or unconsciously is doing his best to carry the spirit, dynamism, passion and energy of the dearly departed Otis Redding to a new generation and deep into the 21st-century…”
Photos: Courtesy of Álvaro Rojo (Pure and Deep Films)
As the saying goes…Good things come in small packages, or in this case small venues. Well, with regards to J.P. Bimeni and The Black Belts who performed their UK album launch of ‘Free Me’ at the very cosy, intimate confines of Upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s, this was exactly the case. The audience consisted primarily of J.P. Bimeni’s old school friends and ex-work colleagues, alongside those who may have caught a taste of The Black Belts sound on BBC 6 Music or other independent internet radio stations and travelled to the renowned venue on Frith Street, London in the hope of catching the J.P. Bimeni and The Black Belts live experience. The gig itself was not even listed on the venue Marquee, so one had to be given the heads up that something ‘special’ was going down Upstairs at Ronnie’s behind a very nondescript grey door whilst bassist Victor Wooten was entertaining other ‘good’ music enthusiasts beneath us on the main stage.
The gig itself kicked off like a 1960s Stax Revue, with the band playing a funky foot-stomping, finger-snapping electric organ-driven instrumental intro à la Booker T and the MG’s. Then after instigating a 15-second soul clap, which the lively audience mimicked immediately, bass player Pablo Cano Fernandez addressed the microphone, “Good evening! How y’all doing ladies and gentlemen! How are you doing! We are The Black Belts and we come from Spain. We want to have a good time. Are you ready to have a good time? So, put your hands together and welcome to the stage J.P. Bimeni!”
Enter stage right, the tall, lithe figure of J.P. Bimeni, sauntering into view attired in brown suede shoes, crisply pressed navy blue straight-legged slacks and collarless white shirt complimented by a set of smart black braces. After a brief “Good evening” from the main protagonist, the band launched into the forthright in-your-face groove of ‘Honesty is a luxury’, with a repetitive but very catchy staccato guitar riff. Whilst J.P. got up close and personal with his new best friend, the microphone stand, the horn section, bass player and guitarist swayed rhythmically side to side metronome-like.
With the audience suitably warmed up, the next offering, ‘Same Man’ gave us the first inkling of the Otis Redding Style energy and vocal inflections that would ramp up as the concert progressed – angling the microphone stand, back and forth and left-to-right, whilst filling the void in between verses with the familiar Otis refrain “Nah, Nah, Nah, Nah ,Nah, Nah, Nah”. As with all the songs on this impressive debut album, ‘Same Man’ instantaneously envelopes you with that warm, hearty, feel-good vibe. The Black Belts are an exceedingly tight Instrumental outfit and J.P. Bimeni could sing the phonebook and sound soulful. Furthermore, this 1960s style throwback gig kept on getting better when the first strains of ‘Madelaine’ permeated the already soulfully energised airwaves. The sumptuous yearning horn intro of saxophonist Rafael Díaz and trumpeter Riccardo Martinez lured the listener in from the get-go, before Mr Bimeni eased in with his powerful, raw, yet controlled vocal to tell the impassioned story about him and ‘Madeleine’. This tune is what they term ‘a sleeper’, it gradually builds and builds to a most wonderful crescendo, which very soon had the entire room, if not actually singing, at least mouthing the insanely catchy strapline.
Rafael Díaz – sax and Riccardo Martinez – trumpet
Prior to the next song ‘Moonset’, the Burundian born J.P. took the opportunity to thank his friends, ex-work colleagues and ex-schoolmates for showing up in such strong numbers to support the UK album launch, “You can’t imagine that all the people here are from all the corners of my life since I’ve been in this country. From the music world to the work world, to my school world past…It’s like a full circle; so thank you, people. Thank you!” The band then proceeded to launch into the mid-tempo vibes of ‘Moonset’, one of this scribes favourite tracks from a rock-solid selection of tunes. Every instrumentalist within the band were in full and complete synchronicity; the horn section giving their chops a proper workout, the bassist, guitarist and drummer maintaining the tempo sublimely; whilst Alex Lárraga was afforded free rein to throw in some outlandish and sweeping flourishes on keyboard/organ. Meanwhile, J.P. Bimeni picked up on the heightened musical atmosphere and automatically upped his game still further; delivering a most captivating and gritty vocal performance, which those fortunate to be in attendance showed their appreciation for via extended whooping and applause at the tune’s completion.
Alex Lárraga – keyboard/organ
The tempo was raised again when the band deviated from their album listing to lay down a rousing version of the Spencer Davis Group’s ‘Keep on Running’, which had the audience, if not running, definitely shaking and shimmering. Those people already shaking and shimmering had no respite as the band dropped the title track to the album ‘Free Me’. J.P. compounded the fact when with a wry smile on his face he proposed to the crowd that “…We have to compare sweat; dancing induced sweat!” The newly assembled J.P. Bimini Fan club were quick to reciprocate shakin’ and bakin’ with abandon throughout the duration of the inhibition freeing, as well sweat-inducing debut single release.
Normal service was resumed briefly as the magnificent seven dipped back into the album with the bright’n’breezy ditty ‘Stupid’, which subtly segued into another soft shoe shuffle sixties cover tune. With all 6 cylinders now pumping at their optimum, the retro rare grove rhythm of ‘Fade Away’, the group’s latest single, plus J.P’s overwhelming magnetism, brought any wallflowers in the audience to the dance floor, like a moth to a flame.
It was already morphing into one of those live gig experiences that adds even more colour to the album if you own it, but definitely makes you want to purchase a copy if you have yet to acquire it. The layers of goodness kept on coming, as J.P. and Co. went full Otis Redding on us with ‘I Miss You’; think ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ Monterey Jazz Festival 1967. Señor Bimeni’s heart-wrenching, soul enriched, the sweat of the brow dripping delivery of this most emotive of ballads, left us in no doubt that the pain of missing that significant one in his life was beyond despair. Full credit to The Black Belts who maintained a steady downbeat sound signature, with the yearningly mournful horns, the church-like organ interspersions, the noticeably subtle guitar strums. and bass and drums providing that sturdy and sure foundation. Altogether the perfect marriage with J.P’s vocal outpourings of emotion. A nice touch at the conclusion of the tune was J.P’s edification of stand-in guitarist, Edu Martínez, who had to cover at the eleventh hour for the missing Black Belt Fernando Vasco.
Following another massive, but most welcome detour from the album in the guise of an infectious rendition of The Scammer’s 1999 breakbeat tune ‘Sally’s Walk’ and an equally infectious Black Belts take on the Johnny Sayles ’70’s Northern Soul foot to floor stomper ‘I Can’t Get Enough’, which saw J.P. strutting across the stage like the legendary Sam Moore (Sam and Dave),the pace was brought right back down again for the second drop-dead gorgeous soul ballad of the evening, from the ‘Free Me’ LP, ‘Pain is the Name of Your Game’. Cue jaws dropping and raw emotions stirring amongst the audience as J.P. once again summoned the essence of The Big ‘O’, Mr Redding to lay down an achingly pleading lead vocal on top of those full-bodied live horn stabs. The audience hung onto to every last word he uttered, the lyrics of which anyone who’s fallen truly, madly, deeply in love can attest to once things go sour.
Rodrigo Díaz – drums
Special mention must go out to the backbone/engine room of The Black Belts, Rodrigo Díaz and Pablo Cano Fernandez on drums and bass respectively, who steadied the soul’n’funk ship impeccably, exuding that natural intuition or invisible connection that bass player and drummer instinctually have, able to play off each other without eye contact. It was a joy to behold how they kept a tight, even rhythm, affording the other members free rein to express themselves when required.
Pablo Cano Fernandez – bass
Now, you know when a concert or gig has taken you to the next dimension when the vocalist steps to the mike and announces that, “This is the last song!” and nobody wants the feel-good sensation to end. Well inevitably, this was the case prior to J.P and The Black Belts sliding into the penultimate song ‘Pain Is The Name of Your Game’. But after departing from the stage for a brief timeout Master Bimeni returned front and centre to raucous applause as the band immediately launched into the mega up-tempo, rabble-rousing and meaningful closing gambit ‘Better World’. Oh and J.P still had plenty more gas in the tank and pep in his step. With the five simple words, “Come on and dance now!” J.P. proceeded to incite the audience to not only participate in dancing but as the song progressed, he implored them to sing along to the optimistic sentiments of “Better World”.
By this time the electricity and heightened energy levels within the club were off the scale. Come the end of the song and thus a thoroughly enjoyable and wholly stimulating evening, it was only left for J.P. to sign off on behalf of The Black Belts and himself, “It’s been proper! Proper! Thank you, Thank you, Thank you very much. Until next time, blessings, enjoy the rest of the week. Much love!”
J.P. Bimeni, whether consciously or unconsciously is doing his best to carry the spirit, dynamism, passion and energy of the dearly departed Otis Redding to a new generation and deep into the 21st-century and is a worthy frontman to carry the message of himself and The Black Belts’ music to a much broader audience.
Left to right: Alex Lerraga, Edu Martínez, J.P. Bimeni, Rodrigo Díaz, Pablo Cano Fernandez, Rafael Díaz and Riccardo Martinez
Essential Album: J.P. BIMENI AND THE BLACK BELTS ‘FREE ME’ LP/CD/DIG (TUCXONE) – UK Vibe album review here
Essential Website: http://www.tucxone-records.com/
Essential bandcamp: https://jpbimeni.bandcamp.com/
NB* Big UK Vibe thanks to Nicole Mckenzie for arranging the evening. It was proper! Proper!