In his Lincoln Center debut last week, Chicago soul singer Zeshan B delivered one of the most rivetingly psychedelic, impassioned, fearlessly relevant performances at any New York venue this year. Introducing the Chicago-born singer/harmonium player and his fantastic band, Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal enthused that he “Encompasses every yummy kind of music there is,” which wasn’t a stretch. In over an hour onstage, he and his slinky, surreal, spot-on four-piece backing band opened with some chill funk, closed with a spine-tingling oldschool soul anthem, in between shifting between new psychedelic arrangements of ancient Indian ghazals, some Bollywood, Sufi balladry, hints of hip-hop and even a couple of sublimely expert detours toward medieval Jewish cantorial music. Is there anything this guy CAN’T sing?
Writer Amy Schiller, ensconced in the front row of the VIP area, quipped that Zeshan B’s brand-new signature style should be called “ghazpel.”
The group’s vampy, impassioned opening number, Breaking Point, rose to a brief guitar solo from the brilliantly incisive Samuel Moesching over the serpentine pulse of bassist Jeremiah Hunt and drummer Greg Artry. The frontman’s harmonium added a trippy, trebly texture, mingling with Rob Clearfield’s blippy electric piano.
Zeshan B isn’t the only brilliant Indian-American singer fronting a psychedelic band – Kamala Sankaram does the same thing in front of the similarly surreal, amazing Bombay Rickey. But it’s hard to imagine anyone else in this hopefully expanding subgenre to channel as much wrenching angst or passion as this guy did with his melismatic baritone. He and the band held the crowd transfixed with their first swaying, gorgeously moody minor-key ghazal, singing in Urdu, rising to an angst-fueled peak, Moesching adding a subtly brooding a wah-wah guitar solo before the bandleader went deep into the grit. Then he went up into the rafters with his powerful falsetto. As he mentioned in passing later in the show, Urdu soul is a real genre. He credited his journalist dad, who reported on African-American music and culture in the 60s and 70s, as a major influence.
The group didn’t waste any time flipping the script, reinventing the Jimmy Cliff ballad Hard Road to Travel as indomitable oldschool Smokey Robinson soul in 12/8 time. Watching a Punjabi-American bring a Jamaican reggae hit full circle, back to its original inspiration, was a real trip; Zeshan B used the outro to air out his falsetto again. A dramatic, mystical invocation that drew on his time as a teenage muezzin at the neighborhood mosque served as the intro to the brisk, anthemic Lonely Man.
Zeshan B has a powerful populist streak. Chicago has been blighted by gentrification almost as devastatingly as New York, and he related how his old neighborhood has been decimated to the point of unrecognizability, just like Williamsburg and Bushwick. He underscored the aftereffects in the longing and nostalgia of a lilting ballad that segued into a slowly crescendoing, echoey interlude. Then with a slow, misty resignation, he and the band built a long launching pad for a big vocal crescendo in Jaane Man, spiced with alternately oscillating and searing Moesching riffage and some wry wah-wah keys from Clearfield.
Zeshan B’s take of Otis Redding’s You Don’t Miss Your Water, just vocals and Clearfield’s piano, took everybody to church. The best song of the night was a brooding minor-key ghazal-rock number, Clearfield’s bitingly trebly keys slithering over a muted swing and Moesching’s jagged accents. Their full-band take of George Perkins’ 1970 cult favorite protest-soul anthem Cryin in the Streets was unexpectedly brief, although the group raised the the rafters with Brown Power, Zeshan B’s affirmation of solidarity among brown-skinned people around the globe. Moesching chopped his chords with a ferocity to match Zeshan B’s insistence that “We ain’t gonna take it no more from the ivory tower – Brown Power!”
After a stop at Bonnaroo, his next show is a hometown gig on June 22 at 8 PM at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W 111th St. in Chicago; tix are $27. And the next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is tomorrow night, June 7 at 7:30 PM with another fearless firebrand singer and bandleader, Mauritania’s Noura Mint Seymali. Get there early if you’re going.