27 April 2017, Common Room
There’s something about Paul Ubana Jones that gives you a direct line to a whole other era of greatness. It’s not just his fabulous ‘fro (all grey now), his dapper ease and stories – watching Jimi Hendrix live in SoHo as a youngster, for instance. Or the fact that the place is intimately packed, meaning there are people kneeling in the front and in aisles, gazing up. Or even memories of the “nicely reckless days” performing at Vidal’s in the late ’80s, ’90s, that have drawn a bunch of the locals (and a tambourine player).
It’s also how he’s given himself to his craft and his roots over 40 years as a “self-sufficient music traveller” in a way that feels unadulterated. And it’s his homage to the contradictions and imperfections of human existence – “Look in the mirror… there’s a crack right in the middle looking back at me”– which lends universality and timelessness to his songs, and yes, a certain wistfulness, combined with his endearing enthusiasm – “Let’s take that path to paradisic love.”
Raised in East London – mother from Yorkshire, a Nigerian father – Ubana Jones served his acoustic apprenticeship during the swinging sixties in the lap of Afro-American blues and English folk rock, blending his influences, his classical training and his own ‘something special’ into a distinctive, unique “acoustic soul”.
His voice has a generous, rich timbre; his virtuoso guitar-play is mesmerising, with all the whistles, claps, percussive whacks of a full instrumental range. It’s resourceful, magical playing: he’s shaking every last note of music from the guitar, dancing the sound out through his astonishingly limber fingers, multiplying song like loaves of bread to feed our hungry hearts.
Alongside his own songs, Ubana Jones’ “reworkings” of those he “brings into [his] heart”, as he explains it, are given back as something compellingly original: ‘Norwegian Wood’, twangy, brash and multi-layered, is met with uproarious applause in the Common Room while I am ‘touched’ by his re-rendered ‘Sound of Silence’.
His (unaccompanied) encore – a tribute to his father – reverberates within me still.