Lincoln Center impresario Jordana Leigh saw Moonlight Benjamin a couple of months ago and was “completely blown away.” So she teamed up teamed up with the World Music Institute to stage the Haitian-born “voodoo blues” singer’s sold-oud American debut this past evening.
Totally gothed out in a slinky black-and-amber lace outfit, Benjamin belted in a powerful, vibrato-infused alto voice, first over a minimalist gutter blues stomp from guitarist Matthis Pascaud – of acerbic postrock band Square One – and drummer Bertrand Noel. The rest of the band then joined them for an eclectic, hard-hitting mix of songs that transcended any kind of blues or Haitian label. If anything, the closest comparison was the early Patti Smith band, at their most psychedelic. This show was at least as much about the guitars as the vocals, maybe more.
Benjamin punctuated a few numbers with a handful of otherworldly whoops, so high that for a second it seemed that the PA was feeding back. With both guitarists playing Fender Jaguar models, using plenty of reverb, they blended eerie, tone-bending spaghetti western sonics with brooding French stadium rock on one of the earlier numbers. Then they went from a pounding hard-funk groove to a scampering outro with more than a hint of Malian duskcore. the petite, muscular Benjamin running in place onstage behind the twin axemen when the guys went down into the crowd.
Her insistent, defiant deliery contrasted with Pascaud’s lingering, sunbaked slide work throughout a long intro that the band finally picked up with a menacing gallop. The guitar duel afterward was like ZZ Top underwater: a surf boogie, maybe
As th show went on, guitar synth effects paired off with lingering, Lynchian clang over a punchy, circling bass riff. Benjamin;s voice took on a fierce, imploring tone as the slow, garagey riff-rock tune afterward built to a guitar inferno. She often takes her Kreyol lyrics from Haitian poetry and literature, known for its allusiveness: when the censors can shut down a lot more than just your career, sometimes you need to signify
She sent most of the band away for a slow, spacy, emotive guitar-and-vocal duet with Pascaud, then Noel enegized the crowd with a surf drum solo. From there they took a pouncing minor-key detour toward Marc Ribot Cubanos Postizos latin-punk territory, A minimalist take on Misssissippi hill country blues was followed by the most lyrically torrential, Patti Smith-like anthem of the night. They clanged and stomped their way out as anthemically as they came in and encored with a diptych that began with slow, Brian Jonestown Massacre-like psychedelia and then picked up with a French Caribbean bonce.
The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St is on May 2 at 7:30 PM with the Minguett String Quartet playing Beethoven. The classical concerts here are very popular with a neighborhood crowd, as much if not more than the rock shows, so if you’re going, get there early