Two Saturdays ago, Sadies guitarist Travis Good thrashed and flailed and spun the headstock of his vintage hollowbody Gretsch, building a howling vortex of sound while his brother Dallas stood more or less motionless as he kept a river of jangle and clang running from his Telecaster. In the middle of the stage, bassist Sean Dean held down a steady pulse while drummer Mike Belitsky kept a nimble shuffle beat.
This past Saturday, Songhoy Blues guitarist Aliou Touré did pretty much the same thing, building a screaming Chicago blues-infused solo, his fellow axeman Garba Touré running a loping Malian duskcore pattern off to the side, bassist Oumar Touré playing a serpentine, circular riff over drummer Nathanael Dembélé’s counterintuiitive flourishes.
On one hand, the Canadian and Malian bands couldn’t have less in common. On the other, both are as psychedelic as you could possibly want. And that seems to be the theme at this year’s free outdoor concert series at Union Pool. They’ve been doing free shows in the back courtyard there for the past couple of years, but this year’s series is better than ever.
There are a lot of acts more popular than you’d expect to see in at this comfortable, comparatively small space. This year, that started with the Sadies. The last time they played New York, it was at Webster Hall (if there ever was a New York venue that deserved to be turned into a luxury condo or a Whole Foods, it was that despicable stain on the East Village). The last time this blog was in the house at a Sadies show, it was May of 2014 at Bowery Ballroom and they were playing with the late Gord Downie.
This show didn’t feature any of their brilliantly ominous songs with the late Tragically Hip crooner, but they touched on every style they’ve ever played. Travis Good broke out his violin for a lickety-split punkgrass romp about midway through the set, and also for the encores. He also delivered some seamlessly expert acoustic flatpicking on a couple of country numbers.
Dallas Good seemed to be in charge of the more epic, tectonic solos, particularly during a mini-suite of surf songs, propelled expertly by Belitsky. They went back into the waves a little later with another instrumental that came across as a more bittersweet, southwestern gothic take on the Ventures’ Apache. But it was the brooding, uneasily clanging midtempo anthems that were the high point of the show. Afterward, Travis Good took care to thank the crowd for coming out – for a free show, no less.
Songhoy Blues are probably the loudest and most eclectic of the Malian duskcore bands to make it to the US so far. They only played a couple of the loping Saharan grooves popularized by first-wave bands like Tinariwen and Etran Finatawa. They opened with a briskly stomping, only slightly Malian-flavored garage rock tune with a searing guitar solo from Garba Touré. Throughout the set, he and the frontman took turns with their solos – a lightning-fast, Blue Oyster Cult-ish run in one of the long, hypnotic numbers midway through was the high point.
After that, they slowed down for a moody minor-key blues ballad that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Otis Rush songbook save for the lyrics. “I know that 99% of you don’t understand a word I’m saying,” Aliou Touré told the crowd: the subtext was that the band’s lyrics are potently political. Then he settled for reminding everybody that music is a universal language. After a couple of numbers that shifted between looming desert rock and frenetically bopping, metrically challenging soukous-flavored rhythms, they closed with a mighty, rising and falling anthem and encored with their lone song in English, Together, a prayer for peace from a part of the world that really needs it.
And a shout-out to the sound guy: this may be an outdoor series, but the sonics in the backyard – a completely uninsulated space with highs potentially bouncing all over the place – were pristine. Few venues sounds as good indoors as at Union Pool outdoors the past couple of Saturdays. That’s a real achievement. The Union Pool free concert series continues this Saturday, July 14 at around 3 with jangly British “power trio” Girl Ray.