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Live From Old York: Delta Saxophone Quartet, Ballaké Sissoko, Larry Miller & Blackbeard's Tea Party

Martin Longley By

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In recent years, the Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko has built up a shining reputation by collaborating with French cellist Vincent Segal. This latest UK tour allowed him to present the music of his homeland in its distilled form, joined by a four-piece combo with guesting vocalist. The gig at the NCEM was sold out in advance, offering a very rare opportunity to hear Malian music performed in York. Sissoko's bandmates were Fassery Diabate (balafon), Moussa Diabate and Oumar Niang (acoustic guitars). The leader came on first, demonstrating the silvery tones of his kora, its strings plucked with dazzling dexterity, sending notes cascading forth in a diaphanous blanket of spangle. Observing the suppleness of Sissoko's thumbs, he could have been the absolute smartphone champion of the city on that Saturday night.

The session's structure was precisely and predictably arranged, providing the sheer pleasure of assured anticipation as the audience watched each band member gradually take to the stage. Next was Niang, at first bearing the traditional n'goni, but then spending the rest of the evening with a 12-string guitar, ably reflecting the scintillations of his leader as he provided his own feast of string-tendril windings. Moussa Diabate stuck to plain ol' six strings, and his attack was sharper, revolving around stinging single-note phrases, though delivered at lightning speed and with maximum note-wobbling embellishment. As each musician entered, the weave strengthened, the melodies losing space and intimacy, but gaining in their joyfully swaying momentum. Fassery Diabate also took several spotlight sections, demonstrating great speed and sensitivity on the marimba-like balafon. Each player subtly moved forward in the spread, then receded to allow another member to highlight their part in the panorama. Then the final layer was revealed as singer Babani Kone took her place onstage. Instrumentals turned into songs, and the emphasis switched to a more pointed gyration. Kone's voice negotiated softly burred deep tones, then vaulted up to deftly controlled high notes, held in a hovering space. She had a very peculiar finger-snapping technique, which was initially intriguing, but swiftly became irritatingly over-used, distracting from the other players and giving the music's glide too much of an imposed rhythm. It's as if she was wanting to take the role of a calabash player. This was one small gripe amidst two substantial sets of absolutely spellbinding music.

Larry Miller
November 28, 2013

It looks like Larry Miller lives to rock. Right from the outset, he was cranked up to maximum performance level, in terms of both adrenalin and volume. Here is a blues rock guitarist who has a similar appeal to that of Joe Bonamassa, Walter Trout, Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore. He teeters on the very brink of mainline rock'n'roll, but still grasps hold of a dirty Delta tone, blistering up the slick rawk solos. Miller also has designs on being a stand-up comedian, or maybe just a simple absurdist. Any tension he might have just built up via scorching pyromania can be instantly the fuel for self-mockery. It's clear that Miller feeds off the energy of his audience, seeking the warm glow of attention. He imagined himself playing to an empty house, even though the venue was packed with a fairly respectable mass of bodies for a frozen Thursday night. His nervy self-analysis reminded this reviewer of England's other blues wizard axeman, Billy Jenkins, in the way that lightning guitar string-singeing technique could ram up against music hall buffoonery. Miller was pretty adept at this conflicting balance of abilities.

His cohorts were all game for rucking, the keyboardist switching from gushing Roland piano to reeling Nord organ sounds, the bassist solidly pumping, and the steamhammer drummer an old hand in Gary Moore's band. Miller didn't bother having an opening act, as he started early and played for around two hours, with only a brief break. It didn't drag in the slightest. Miller and crew's exuberance was infectious. Most of the songs took ten minutes or so to develop their verse-chorus-solo-solo-solo curve, flying through "The Girl That Got Away," "Messin' With The Kid" and "Delilah" (which Miller turned into an emotive ballad, despite completely mocking absolutely everything just prior to its delivery). The only questionable move was playing Moore's "Parisienne Walkways" as an encore, which seemed like a too-obvious choice, and a curiously slow-moving tune with which to climax the night.

Blackbeard's Tea Party
The Duchess
November 29, 2013


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