October 4, 2014
This was the climactic set on the first day of the inaugural New York version of the Modern Sky festival, an event that originates in Beijing. There could have been a percentage of audience members concealing their nine-album box sets of William Onyeabor's complete works, but it was probably small. A much less intimidating collection of this retiring Nigerian funk- pop master's output can be found as a single disc, on the Luaka Bop label's Who Is William Onyeabor? release. That's also the subtitle of Atomic Bomb!, the recently convened band/project/roadshow, dedicated to the re-creation of his hookline-filled oeuvre. This touring endeavour is necessitated by the rare reluctance of a hitherto obscure artist, with Onyeabor displaying no interest in capitalising on newly awakened attention. He's lurking around, apparently, but unwilling to perform, or appear in any capacity.
This is the solution. These epic songs deserve to be heard onstage. Luaka Bop head honcho David Byrne and his label-team have been instrumental is assembling an unlikely posse of semi-starry players, united by a foundation sound that's descended directly from the funk period of Talking Heads. Onyeabor's original music was tied onto the tracks between kitsch and hip, and might even be christened hipsch. There's a nerdiness to the 1980s synthesiser sounds and beats, a makeshift crankiness that actually serves the skeletal funk. The key tunes had a tendency towards epic durations, which now make a perfect springboard for live vamping build-ups. Byrne himself has previously appeared in the leading Onyeabor role, and surely couldn't have resisted at least guesting during this show, but was doubtless across the ocean for the London opening of his Here Lies Love musical.
Ahmed Gallab and his Sinkane crew formed the core of a sprawling band, with Hot Chip's nerd-bug Alexis Taylor and the ultra-zany Money Mark (mostly known for his longtime work with The Beastie Boys) on keyboards. Electronicists Peaking Lights and hip hoppers Dead Prez were also part of the cocktail. Gallab sported a Stetson and suit, in the Onyeabor fashion (William is now a businessman, apparently, but perhaps he still wears the same old gear), and his lead vocals on the first few numbers were gradually subsumed by the guest roster. Taylor began the high-vaulting soulful tendencies, prompting the initial escalation of ecstatic groove, passing the torch to English soul-boy Jamie Lidell, who was on magnificent form, as if just sprung from solitary confinement. He paced and darted about the stage, wooing the Mahotella Queens, that revered South African vocal group. The sizzling connection between these unlikely partners was profound, even if it did involve Lidell seducing this high-stepping threesome. And then there were a pair of skaters too: the stage had become infested with bounding, bouncing, zig-zagging performers, all completely entangled in the sticky funk.
Even more surprising was the appearance of tenor man Pharoah Sanders
, who ambled onstage to deliver a rousingly abstract solo, then proceeded to stay around, swaying and gyrating to the music continuously, whilst waiting for his next soloing opportunity to arrive. His bliss was so extreme that he refused to leave the stage. It was around 15 minutes into the set that all of these disparate elements converged into a staggering musical hallucination. It was the sort of scenario that would normally (or abnormally) exist only in dreams. The band managed to convey the retro-essence of Onyeabor's Afro-futurist dance music, but also brought forth all of their own multi-hued experiences to shape a very unlikely miscegenation, and making up one of the funkiest, freakiest, most positive gig experiences of the year.
October 6, 2014
The old Mott The Hoople keyboardist was in the middle of his holidays, but decided to host an evening of reminiscing, whilst in town. This was the first time he'd been to NYC since 1978, and the mid-1970s touring heyday with Ian Hunter's gang. Even though Fisher's an Englishman, he's been living in Japan for the last three decades, so his appearances in the UK are also scarce. Although dirty-glam rock'n'roll provided his most public career phase, Fisher is a more unusual character, who swiftly became attuned to the punk movement at its peak, and adventurously threw himself into the choppy waters of underground experimentation. Before Mott, our man helped create pop hits with The Love Affair, and afterwards, he made an abstract environmental record with soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill
. The road life connected Fisher with many personalities along the way, crossing paths with David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and Queen, the latter of whom he joined during their last touring period, when they finally opened the gates to previously banned synthesisers.
This was expected to be an informal, highly specialised presentation. If the uninitiated had chanced along, they would have been mystified by this huddled gathering listening to vintage Hoople hits delivered by an old bloke at a piano, sung in a partly flat fashion. It was essential to be at least partially aware of this man's legacy. The evening's significance lay in the narrative aspect, the flowing key-articulation, and the anecdotal humour in-between. Perhaps Fisher should have allowed a greater amount of solo piano work, but his confident vocal delivery compensated for any technical lack. He showed old photographs and grainy videos, sweeping the audience back to a lost era of mega-rock tours, when stardom seemed so much more significant, and the road-rules and management strictures hadn't yet been carved in granite. This was an industry that was still finding its way, ploughing through the snow. Fisher delivered an endearing show, but this was really only designed for folks who were already prepared to observe Mott-life and its surrounding artistic terrain. Precisely the kind of demographic that was drawn in to this arcane ritual of nostalgia.
The Knitting Factory
October 12, 2014
Standing next to the entrance for this gig, each fresh arrival could be heard muttering an impressed comment, or emitting a gasp of pleasurable surprise. For an evening of David Lynch-ian sounds, the aura couldn't have been improved upon. Silencio, all the way from Pittsburgh, elected to keep the lighting down to a deep minimum, mostly dark-blue hued. The Knitting Factory's stage happens to be semi-circular in its jut, which is perfectly suitable for a Lynchian cabaret vibration. The band themselves were garbed blackly, barely visible as they sensitively evoked the mood of Lynch's flicks, from Eraserhead up to a premonition of the soon-coming Twin Peaks exhumation. What could be better?
Formed in 2011, Silencio are named after Lynch's Paris club (and its filmic predecessor in Mulholland Drive), employing a line-up of guitar, tenor saxophone, keyboards, bass and drums, along with singer Dessa Poljak, who looks like she's drifted straight out of Lynch's darkest corner. The foundation sound was, as expected, a blend of noir jazz, heavily decelerated surf-rock and reverb-splashed pop'n'roll. Most of the themes were from the pens of Brooklynite Angelo Badalamenti (with Lynch looming over his shoulders), but there were also numbers popularised by Roy Orbison and Chris Isaak, as well as Julee Cruise. Silencio also extend the scope with original material, scribed heavily in the language used within the Badalynch universe. A lounge sophistication was interrupted from its gliding slinkiness by strategic uprisings of leprous guitar, the keys and horn suddenly growing a crusted skin of momentarily more savage bearing. Then the slippery movement would return, but always with a portent of doomed doings, perhaps often existing merely in the mind of the listener rather than actual reality.
Singer Poljak entered for the second part of each set, tending to lighten the mood following the stormier dealings of the instrumentals. The rendition of "In Heaven," from Eraserhead (written by Peter Ivers), was profoundly spine- scraping. Most of the best-known pieces were, courageously, delivered during the first set, as if the band were confident that their more obscure second half would still entangle the seated gathering. A different kind of pleasure was lapped up by the standees, slinking around the bar and the perimeter, some of them struggling to perfect their Twin Peaks midget gyrations. Orbison's "In Dreams" may be re-christened with knowing irony, but other songs sounded genuinely naïve, or terribly threatening, in turn. Such multiple mood-layering was always a key strategy of Lynch and Badalamenti, and now Silencio, with this one-of-a-kind authentic tribute tributary.
Chop And Quench
(le) Poisson Rouge
October 15, 2014
The roots of Chop And Quench lie in the Broadway production of Fela!, the musical dedicated to the life of Mister Kuti, Nigeria's greatest musical export, and still the unchallenged king of Afrobeat music. This Felabration! evening had C&Q headlining, with the juicy support of Boston's Ethiopian fusioneers, the Debo Band, and the ubiquitous ?uestlove on the decks. The Debo crew are led by saxophonist Danny Mekonnen, part of a thrusting horn section, with Ethiopian singer Bruck Tesafaye providing a hyperactive bridge between band and audience, along with much of the hardcore sound of the songs. Debo's guitarist ensured a frequent rearing up of rock frazzle, but the presence of violin and accordion were just as likely to shunt the sound off into an unexpected direction. The combo also jumped between funk, Afrobeat, soul, and New Orleans stylings, knitting such diversity into a seamless sound that didn't sound like a forced fusion. It's just the naturally flowing Debo personality, a powerful entity indeed.
Chop And Quench weren't so wholeheartedly convincing. Their triumphant passages included intense spoutings of "Zombie" and "Colonial Mentality," offered hard and heavy, but then there were several openings up into protracted crowd- participation sections, where the drive diminished and the attention floundered. This was when the dancers on the floor eased off, drifting away. It would be difficult to maintain such a power-level for much longer, but perhaps the band could have slipped in even more Fela tunes, with main man Sahr Ngaujah (from Sierra Leone) singing in a more concentrated fashion. Ultimately, there were too many diversions from the crucial hypnotic thrust.
Photo Credit: Jessie Yip