In his New York debut this evening, Agadez, Niger duskcore guitarist Mdou Moctar told a packed house at Lincoln Center that “The desert isn’t for the Tuareg anymore.” Beyond those catastrophic implications, the Sahara’s loss is the world’s gain. With that, he let his guitar and his songs do the talking.
Like Hendrix and Albert King (and Otis Rush, Randi Russo, and many more), Moctar is a lefty, which might have something to do with how much more eclectic his sound is compared to his desert brethren. The revolutionary anthem he opened with was remarkably straightforward, building to a resolute crescendo over his drummer’s straight-up, swaying rock beat, the rhythm guitarist holding down a simple, syncopated strum. Meanwhile, Moctar fingerpicked psych-blues riffs through his wah, varied his textures and found a fourth stone from the sun. This is what the vastness of the desert inspires, especially if you’ve grown up there.
His vocals had a similar confidence and resilience. But the ache and longing in the opening riffage of his second number transcended any linguistic limitation and resounded even as the boomy triplet groove picked up steam. Llike any other jamband leader, Moctar works long serpentine solos, but with more dynamics and also more chord changes than this style is known for. Likewise, his hooks are as catchy as they get.
He’d leave a string open to resonate, raga style as he spun silky filigrees with his hammer-ons, leaving lots of space in between runs: the effect raised the impact the louder and faster he played. He kicked off one tune with gently shivery tremolo-picking, then the band hit a groove that was practically a waltz, finally hitting his distortion pedal for an almost venomous intensity. He stayed in red-flame, whirlwind mode for the next song as the two other musicians ran hypnotic triplets that echoed off the walls: at this point, it was clear that they weren’t missing anything by not having a bass player. Finally, toward the end, he left the midrange for a single shriek up high: talk about choosing your moment to make a point!
Echoes of Led Zep, a wryly impromptu drum solo and an even funnier disco interlude punctuated a long tuning episode: Moctar’s ear is so fine-tuned to overtones that he doesn’t use a digital tuner. He rewarded the crowd for their patience with the night’s most sizzling intro and then an irresistible if very subtle Paul Desmond quote.
The next stop on Moctar’s US tour is this Saturday night, Sept 30 at the Howland Center, 477 Main St. in Beacon, New York; cover is a ridiculously affordable $10. The atrium space at Lincoln Center has become one of Manhattan’s hottest spots for global music: the next free concert there is on Oct 5 at 7:30 PM with the charismatic “Duque de la Bachata,” Joan Soriano; the earlier you get there, the better.