To the casual observer, Scritti Politti — essentially the nom de disque of Welsh singer Green Gartside — is a name on a dusty ’80s mix tape, ensconced in the memory bank thanks to a pair of sleek dance-soul hits. But a peeling back of the historical layers reveals a long, strange trip that ranks with the most intriguingly twisting roads in recent pop history — from roots in the art-damaged post-punk scene of late ’70s Britain to collaborations with several of the more envelope-pushing hip-hop artists of the past decade.
Stateside fans have never had much of a chance to experience the full spectrum of Gartside’s work, thanks in large part to the crippling stage fright that kept him from live performance for more than two decades.
At this, Scritti Politti’s first Gotham show, he and a group of musicians he’s described as “friends from my local pub” treated a sparse but animated crowd to one of the warmest, most joyful shows to blow through town this year.
While much of the perf was drawn from this year’s Mercury Prize-nominated Nonesuch release “White Bread, Black Beer,” Gartside and company skipped deftly across Scritti’s eras, crafting a coherent whole out of ingredients as disparate as the 1978 dub-reggae workout “Skank Bloc Bologna” and the gently trilling mid-’80s swooner “The ‘Sweetest Girl.’ ” Those songs, like much of the Scritti catalog, are steeped in Marxist and structuralist thought — the band’s name itself is Latin for “political writings” — but one needn’t consult a libretto to appreciate them.
That’s due in large part to Gartside’s voice, an expressive instrument that’s not so much a falsetto as an androgynously silky vessel recalling the heyday of the Chi-Lites and the Dramatics. Convivial takes on “Snow in Sun” and the teasing “The Word Girl” made the most of that quality, allowing Gartside to drift skyward. He was accompanied by harmony vocals from keyboardist Rhodri Marsden and bassist Alyssa McDonald, whose contributions didn’t so much contrast the airiness as mimic it, creating a veritable sea of ether.
McDonald’s unfussy playing keyed the bottom end of songs like “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin” as well as the smattering of hip-hop offerings — notably a cover of Jeru the Damaja’s “Come Clean” — that let Gartside flaunt his surprisingly fluid rhyming skills.
And even though Gartside needed the help of a lyric sheet to make it through some of the perf’s wordier stretches, the singer never lost touch with the aud and — nerves be damned — forged the sort of bond that generated broad smiles on both sides of the stage lights.