Louie Vega’s E.O.L. Soulfrito @ Royal Festival Hall

Louie Vega’s EOL Soulfrito
Royal Festival Hall, London
Thursday 31st January 2019

Louie Vega – musical director / conductor
Josh Milan – vocals and keyboards
Silvano Monasterios – keyboards
Gene Perez – electric bass
Luisito Quintero – drums and percussion
Robert Vilera – congas and percussion
Anané Vega – vocals
Dawn Tallman – vocals
Ramona Dunlap – vocals

Possibly one of the most influential figures from all the various forms of contemporary dance music, Louie Vega returned to London with his Elements of Life ensemble to perform at the Royal Festival Hall at Southbank to a sold out crowd on a bitterly cold January evening. Although billed as an EOL (Elements of Life) show, many of Vega’s differing musical outlets were presented which gave the show a richness and depth not always experienced in a live setting.

The opening number was an untitled Earth, Wind & Fire inspired piece before the group moved into the rare groove of ‘Until You Come Back To Me’ by Aretha Franklin and written by Stevie Wonder in 1974, but here with added Latin accoutrements to the arrangement. Next, was another classic but this time from the jazz world and a remake of the War instrumental ‘Flying Machine (The Chase)’ from the Youngblood OST (1978). Nonetheless, it was eternal soulful house anthem, ‘Into My Life (You Brought The Sunshine)’ from 2008 that genuinely ignited the near 3,000 capacity audience into rapture. And this switching between Vega related productions and remakes of older classics was a theme that continued throughout the evening.

One of the fundamental components of the night was Josh Milan’s involvement, a long time collaborator with Vega and an artist in his own right, and with his 2012 cut ‘Children Of The World’, Josh sang lead vocals in addition to playing Wurlitzer electric piano and even throwing some George Benson-esque skat vocals in for good measure. Josh also remained front-and-centre for ‎’Thinking About Your Body’ which even included a melodica solo! EOL were then joined on stage by Anané Vega (Louis’ wife) to sing a traditional song from Cabo Verde, Anané’s place of birth, which was thus augmented by the versatile EOL rhythm section.

Then came a suite of three soul and jazz classics, the first being Roy Ayers’ ‘You Came Into My Life (1978) and then another Roy piece and his most famous, ‘Everybody Loves The Sunshine’ from 1976 which included some enthusiastic crowd participation. And finally for this section, the band performed an animated version of Webster Lewis’ ‘Barbara Ann’ (1978), the UK jazz dance standard and a record I must have bought when I was 17 which still sounded fresh – especially with Josh Milan’s virtuoso electric piano playing. Josh was then on hand to lead another one of his compositions with ‘The World Is A Family’ which again featured another melodica solo – two melodica solos in one night must be a first!

‘One Dream’, an early EOL production from 2007 with its Latin tinged rhythm track and broken chords (as in broken Latin chords not broken beat) then led into an homage to Louie’s Porto Rican heritage with ‘V.P. Blues’ which was originally recorded by Eddie Palmieri with Harlem River Drive in 1972. As akin to the original, the organ was key with dual Hammond solos and heavy percussion elements added. This was then followed by a Ray Barretto salsa tribute which utilised the ubiquitous 2-3 clave rhythm and finally Anané returned to sing another Cabo Verde song, ‘Saudade’, which translated means possessing a sense of longing, a common sentiment within Brazilian and Portuguese music.

EOL then moved into a jazz direction with a brilliantly stripped down version of ‘A New Day’ with Milan replacing original vocalist Caron Wheeler and then UK songstress Zara McFarlane joined the stage for the sassy ‘Because We Love It’ taken from ‘Louie Vega Starring…XXVIII’ (2016) which was possibly my favourite track of the entire performance. Nearing the end of the evening, the group transformed into funk mode with ‘Get With The Funk’ taken from Louie’s ‘NYC Disco’ album (2018), which was reminiscent of ‘Positive Force’s ‘We Got The Funk’ and incorporated elements of MJ’s ‘Workin’ Day And Night’ chord progressions.

Penultimate track ‘Black Gold Of The Sun’ was essentially a live re-imagining of the legendary 4Hero version and was dedicated by Louie to the late great Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson in addition to Louie shouting out Goldie, 4Hero and Roni Size. And finally, Kings Of House NYC’s ‘Still Here’, an unreleased track (except on the limited ‘Amsterdam Dance Event 2018 Sampler’) closed the near two and a half hour set after a brief encore. Phew.

Unbeknown to myself, there was also an official after-party at the nearby (but not so nearby in the minus degree temperatures) Proud Embankment club featuring Mi-Soul DJs, but also a set by the man himself – just to keep us diehards going for a few more hours. Thanks to Michelle for the invite.

I would argue that the night was more of a celebration of all the diverse musical styles that have influenced Louie during his long and esteemed career rather than just being a gig. Soul, jazz, funk, Latin, Afro beat as well as house were all presented in some form by his group Elements of Life. All members performed to a high standard but Josh Milan needs to be especially singled out for this central role in bringing all theses disparate parts together in a cohesive manner.

Finding negatives, there were obvious sound problems during the evening, which is difficult to comprehend for a venue of this calibre, plus, the audio engineering of the show was not of a high standard. But these issues were vastly overshadowed by the mesmerising performances and the enormous energy in the room from the thoroughly passionate audience, which is no mean feat for a venue so vast, with even Louie exclaiming ‘… our music is in theatres now!’

Damian Wilkes