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Hypnotically Slinky, Irresistible Grooves on the Latest Amadou & Mariam Tour

Sometimes all it takes is new keyboards to completely transform a psychedelic band. At Malian legends Amadou & Mariam’s show at Prospect Park last summer, those keys were usually lush and orchestral, giving the husband/wife duo a majestic Pink Floyd backdrop for their mesmerizing, undulating, psychedelic tunesmithing. In the set’s funkiest moments, those textures gave the group more of a Talking Heads feel. But last night at the group’s latest New York stop on their never-ending tour, keyboardist Charles-Frédérik Avot channeled the Doors’ Ray Manzarek with his spiraling, Balkan-tinged organ and surrealistically echoey electric piano. Those carnivalesque timbres were a perfect fit with the duo’s signature blend of trancey Malian duskcore, hot buttered American soul and uneasy 60s acid rock.

They’re one of the genuine feel-good stories of the last several decades: Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met at a school for the blind, married and have gone on to become a major draw on the global jamband and outdoor festival circuit. As usual, Mariam would do a three-song set and then be escorted offstage for a break while Amadou stood inscrutable behind his shades, moving effortlessly between oldschool 60s soul, spare janglerock and energetically unwinding spirals of blues. He soloed like crazy at that Brooklyn gig last summer, but this time out he unleashed a grand total of three solos. The first might have gone twelve bars, tops. The second featured a mysterious, watery blend of wah and reverb; the last was the longest, and most evocative of the wildfire American blues legend Amadou often brings to mind, Albert Collins. The premise last night seemed to be to keep everybody wanting more.

Mariam also induced goosebumps throughout the crowd when her voice took an unexpected flight up toward the stratosphere on a midtempo jangle-soul number midway through the set: vocally, she hasn’t lost a step. And she made an unselfconsciously fetching presence when she reached over to her guitarslinger husband and stroked his shoulder during the last of the band intros: the affection between the two is also still there.

Their lyrics shift between Bambara and French, between the romantic and the political. Amadou’s long introduction to La Confusion, an African unity anthem, underscored how daunting and Kafkasque it is to simply engage with a totalitarian regime, let alone bargain with one. By contrast the band transformed Bofou Safou – a blippy, techy mess on record – into a mighty, unstoppable, whoomp-whoomp dancefloor anthem fueled by the turbocharged beats of drummer Yvo Abadi and percussionist Joel Hierrezuelo, the group’s bassist vamping his way along with a growling, gritty tone.

Among African cities that the duo sent a shout out to, Bamako seemed to be best represented in the crowd. But Amadou didn’t need to give the rest of the audience a French lesson to get them singing along to Je Pense a Toi (Thinking About You), one of their catchiest, most popular and lighthearted numbers. They finally called it a night after over an hour and a half onstage, pretty impressive for a midweek show in the middle of nowhere in outer-borough post-industrial warehouse-land.

After a stop at Bonnaroo, the best ticket to the ongoing Amadou & Mariam tour is for the June 15-16 stand at San Francisco’s SF Jazz at 201 Franklin St., where you can get in for $30.

Innov Gnawa and Amadou & Mariam at the Peak of Their Psychedelic Powers at Prospect Park

“It’s hot all over,” guitarist/singer Amadou Bagayoko remarked to the Prospect Park Bandshell crowd last night in his heavy-lidded, Malian French drawl. On the hottest night of the year so far, one of the other things he noticed that was all over the place was weed. See, Amadou is blind. His other senses are working overtime.

But it hardly took a sensitive nose to pick up on what was wafting from the slope out back: this was a show for the smokers. And the place was packed: from personal experience and a survey of random concertgoers who’ve seen multiple shows here recently, the only act who’s drawn as much of a crowd as Amadou & Mariam was Jamaican dancehall star Chronixx. Psychedelic music has never been so popular as it is in 2017.

Which is no surprise. Amadou & Mariam are arguably the world’s most individualistic psychedelic rock band. Over the years, they’ve inched further and further from their original mashup of sprawling two-chord Malian desert rock jams and bouncy central African pop, to a much more western sound rooted in the 1960s. And they’ve never sounded so interesting, or eclectic as they are now.

Mariam Doumbia – Amadou’s wife and childhood sweetheart – sang in her enigmatic, uneasily bronzed, sometimes gritty delivery in both French and Bambara, often harmonizing with Amadou’s balmy croon, going through a couple of costume changes in the process. Behind them, their drummer alternated between stomp, slink and funk while their bassist played tasteful, serpentine riffs and countermelodies, their keyboardist adding lushness and lustre on organ and several synth patches.

They opened with Bofou Safou, their driving, biting new single, sending a message that this show was going to rock pretty hard. From there they made their way methodically through a couple of leaping dance-funk numbers that brought to mind mid-80s Talking Heads, a starry nightscape with majestic Pink Floyd echoes, several similarly mighty blues-based anthems and a deliciously creepy detour into late 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelia.

It was on that allusively menacing number that Amadou took his longest, wildest, solo of the night. While his playing sometimes brings to mind the feral icepicking of Albert Collins, the twangy sparkle of Mark Knopfler and the machinegunning hammer-ons of Vieux Farka Toure, he doesn’t seem to be influenced by any of them, and with the exception of his countryman and younger colleague Toure, may not have even heard those guys. Winding up and down and around, he brought his long trails of sixteenth notes home to a final comet tail and wild applause. The band have a new album due out next month: if this concert is any indication, it’s going to be amazing.

Brooklyn’s own Innov Gnawa, whose career has taken a meteoric rise recently, opened and got a full hour onstage, a rarity at this venue. The sea of fans they’d brought to the show might explain why. Fresh off a Coachella appearance and a marathon series of New York club gigs, it’s hard to imagine a hotter band in town right now.

The only gnawa band in the world west of Morocco, they play the original drum-and-bass music. With roots in sub-Saharan, pre-Muslim central Africa, transplanted to the north, many of their hypnotic, pulsing, crackling themes date from over a thousand years ago. It’s party music, for sure, but it has even more cultural resonance for healing and spiritual purposes. With limited time (for them – this band can jam for hours) and a big stage to work with, they clanked and boomed and snapped their way through a dynamic mix of straight-ahead dance jams and trickier, turn-on-a-dime rhythms, winding up with frontman/sintir lute player Hassan Ben Jaafer running his basslines faster and faster as his chanting choir of bandmates whirled their cast-iron castnets, encircling him and bringing the show to a peak that would have been daunting to most headliners other than Amadou & Mariam.

Amadou & Mariam continue on US tour; their next show is on July 24 at 6:30 PM at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in Chicago; admission is free. Innov Gnawa are uptown at Ginny’s Supper Club on July 27, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30  PM; your best deal is standing room at the bar for $15.

The next show at Prospect Park Bandshell is tomorrow night, July 22 at 7:30 PM and opens auspiciously with Innov Gnawa percussionist Amino Belyamani’s similarly innovative, mesmerizingly rhythmic dancefloor minimalist trio, Dawn of Midi. Jury’s out on the headliner: are Mashrou ‘Leila the Lebanese Cure, or just another lame corporate dance-rock act?

The Duhks Bring Their Energetic Folk-Rock and Americana Roots to Subculture

Canadian band the Duhks were one of the best of the first wave of newgrass groups from the late 90s and early zeros. They’ve got a characteristically fun, stylistically cross-pollinating new album, Beyond the Blue (streaming at Spotify) and a show coming up at Subculture on July 30 at 8; $17 advance tix are highly recommended.

What’s the chance that an acoustic, Appalachian-tinged cover of a song by psychedelic Malian desert rock duo Amadou & Mariam would actually work? Pretty unlikely, maybe, but the Duhks make the connection more than once. The album has two versions, one in the middle and a reprise at the end of the album. The first brings to mind the kind of African adventures that banjo player Jayme Stone was going deep into about seven years ago; the second works a somber, accordion-fueled Acadian folk ambience. By contrast, the album’s title track bounces along with dancing, banjo-like bouzouki from Colin Savoie-Levac alongside guest Charlie Rose’s pedal steel and Rosie Newton’s pensive fiddle.

The band puts a fiery electric spin on the ominously rustic, minor-key Banjo Roustabout. Jessee Havey and Tania Elizabeth join voices with a gentle persuasiveness for the waltz Suffer No Fools: it’s a hopeful anthem about leaving users and losers behind. The band goes back to minor-key, electric ferocity for the steady, swaying Fairport Convention-esque Burn. Then they take an unexpected but wildly successful detour into vintage 60s soul music with These Dreams, which with its jaunty trumpet and swirly organ wouldn’t be out of place on a Lake Street Dive album.

The album’s longest song, Black Mountain Lullaby slinks along with a hypnotic, bittersweet, nocturnal feel, the fiddle soaring over steady banjo and resonant electric guitar, which the band keeps going throughout the instrumental Tenderhoning. They raise the roof with Lazy John, which is anything but lazy; it’s sort of a mashup of Acadian folk and Brooklyn-grass. The mostly-instrumental You Go East I’ll Go West starts out with a stately tiptoe pulse, then picks up with a long, intense, twisting and turning fiddle solo. Then the band goes into piano-fueled gospel with Just One Step Away. Lots of rootsy flavors here, all of them good: it’s amazing how effortlessly they channel two hundred years of history while adding their own unique energy.

Globalfest 2012 – In Case You Haven’t Heard Already

If you were out seeing concerts this past weekend in the West Village, you probably noticed an older hippie/academic crowd in full effect: that’s because this time of year in New York is when the annual booking agents’ convention, a.k.a. APAP takes place. Most of the shows associated with the convention are open to the public, and because the performers are essentially auditioning, the performances can be genuinely transcendent. Last weekend certainly was, from the amazing first annual Maqamfest at Alwan for the Arts on Friday night, through the end of the two-day Winter Jazzfest on Saturday and then the grand finale, Globalfest at Webster Hall on Sunday night. Give NPR credit for recording the entirety of Globalfest and making much of that available online. NPR’s coverage of rock music may be a joke, but they really have their finger on the pulse of a whole lot of other genres, including many styles from around the world. This year’s Globalfest theme, or maybe its ongoing theme, was phat beatzz – and until the actually very good Malian rap-rock group SMOD took the stage late in the evening, those phat beatzz were all organic, no canned rhythms to be found anywhere. And the younger portion of the crowd felt them: people came to dance.

Because Globalfest is part of the convention, the performances are staggered throughout several stages – three this year – so that theoretically, a concertgoer (or booking agent wanting to check out prospective talent onstage) can catch twenty minutes’ worth of everyone on the bill. However, having seen what happened at the overbooked Winter Jazzfest Saturday night – at least two, maybe more of the clubs involved were sold out by ten PM and looked like they’d stay that way – it seemed to make more sense to try to cherrypick the performances here, and show up a little early if necessary so as not to get shut out of anything. As it turned out, that never seemed to happen (although the downstairs “Marlin Room” was a sweltering sardine can all night long).

The first notable act was Yemen Blues, who drew the biggest crowd of the evening, an enthusiastic posse of Sephardic kids who packed themselves in close to the stage and danced joyously to the group’s slinky funk rhythms. Yemen Blues are neither Yemeni nor are they a blues band: the nine-piece Israeli-American group is something akin to the missing link between Rachid Taha and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with occasional detours into the Middle East, or, on one song, into French Creole balladry. Over the hypnotic pulse of Omer Avital’s bass, the string section and horns fired off lively, amiable Moody Blues-style classical cadenzas while their frontman – a big hit with the ladies in the crowd, old and young – slunk and implored and very effectively got everyone to move their bodies. Avital is one this generation’s great jazzmen – although nobody seemed to recognize him. He’s been playing a lot of oud lately, and with that instrument added a dark, pensive thicket of moody textures to the band’s slower songs, including one particularly harrowing, introductory taqsim.

By the time they’d finished, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino had already begun their equally ecstatic set one floor below. Switching nimbly between instruments, the band romped through a tarantella dance, brass-fueled gypsy tunes, a hypnotic drum-and-harmonium trance piece and even a plaintive waltz sung by frontwoman Maria Mazzotta with a brittle, angst-fueled passion. With many acoustic instruments -bouzouki, fiddle and trumpet, to name a few – but an electric rhythm section, they add a rock explosiveness to a repertoire that seems to encompass every style that ever passed through Italy in the last three hundred years, emphasis on the beatzz – which were phat, and 100% organic.

After them, it was time to head upstairs for a brief detour into French territory with gypsy jazz chanteuse Zaz, who’d also brought out a sizeable crowd from her home turf (the French Music Office, who’ve been an important part of Globalfest since day one, get credit for her as well as many of the other standouts on the bill). Her playful, husky rasp goes straight back to Piaf; the spiky, slinky, twin guitar-fueled tunes, straight back to Django Reinhardt. Casually joking with the crowd and playing coyly seductive cocktail drum, she could be Norah Jones’ more animated Parisienne cousin. Were her beatzz phat? No. But her bassist was – his beatzz were, that is. Tilting his bull fiddle on its side, he was given a solo and wisely chose not to upstage his frontwoman. It would have been nice to have been able to catch more than a handful of her songs, but the idea of getting shut out of a performance by the Silk Road Ensemble just wasn’t happening.

And they were transcendent. While group founder Yo-Yo Ma may no longer play every one of their shows, they remain one of the most astonishingly eclectic and entertainingly virtuosic ensembles on the planet. While much of their recent commissioned work – they continue to dedicate themselves to premiering important pieces from a global list of young composers, not necessarily Asian ones – has been on the hypnotic, intensely quiet side, this time out they flat-out rocked. From the suspenseful, austerely microtonal, upward sweep of their opening piece, through a couple of dizzyingly polyrhythmic percussion interludes, to what seemed to be the club remix of the Kayhan Kalhor classic Ascending Bird, they were no less energetic than Yemen Blues had been. Was violinist Colin Jacobsen going to be able to keep up with the breakneck pace? Yes, he was. The moment when he handed off one particular flourish to his Brooklyn Rider string quartet bandmate, violinist Johnny Gandelsman, who flung it back with equal relish and precision, was the high point of the night.

At one point, their drummer got up, positioned himself in front of the mics, and fired off a solo by hammering on his chest and then working his way down to what seemed his ankles. That’s called “bodymusic” – and one hopes he saves it for the next special occasion, otherwise he’ll be black-and-blue after a week’s worth of shows. The group careened through a bracing tarantella-flavored mini-suite, and after an intense, aching Asian sheng-and-vocal piece, closed with a lush but ecstatic Ljova arrangement of a Taraf de Haidoucks gypsy dance, turning over the high point of the crescendo to the pipa player, who matter-of-factly nailed it in a frenzied flurry of tremolo-picking. Definitely not your parents’ chamber music.

“This is for the girl from Italy,” SMOD guitarist Sam told the crowd, referring to Mazzotta – like many of the musicians, he’d obviously been circulating before before taking the stage himself, and had obviously liked what he heard enough to dedicate a carefree, reggae-tinged ballad to her. The son of Amadou and Mariam, he and his group have an ongoing relationship with Manu Chao, who produced their latest album and has frequently toured with them. Layering catchy reggae-rock tunes with acoustic guitar and swooshy organ over a beatbox and the occasional pre-programmed loop, he and his two vocalists rapped in a mixture of his hometown Bamako dialect and in French as well. While the tunes may be smooth and upbeat, the band is mad as hell. With a message of solidarity for downtrodden populations around the world, they offered hope and redemption as well as revenge on the one-percenters who’re responsible for the mess: they’re completely in the moment and have a lot of catchy songs as well.

Was the club’s small downstairs studio space going to be sufficient for Boston-based Ethiopian funk orchestra Debo Band and all their fans? It’s not much bigger than the back room at Don Pedro’s in Bushwick. Then again, before they moved on to bigger stages, Debo Band played Don Pedro’s, more than once if memory serves right, so with the help of a frenetic crew of sound engineers, this was a triumphant return to their small-club roots. And the kids, knowing what was coming, packed it: if there were any oldsters left in the house by eleven, they probably didn’t stand a chance of getting in. The ten-piece band was the perfect choice of headliner on a night that had already been full of amazing moments, beginning with a sizzling opener, the haunting, chromatically-charged classic Musikawi Silt. Through one hypnotically bouncy vamp after another, with searing solos from wah-wah violin, crazed bebop tenor sax and psychedelic reverb-toned electric guitar, the grooves never stopped. As far as phat beatzz go, this band has both a bass and a sousaphone: it doesn’t get any phatter than that, and to the sound engineers’ infinite credit, they got what looked like a thicket of microphones to work pretty much trouble-free. With any concert this pricy (the Bowery Ballroom folks, who booked this, were selling advance tickets at the Mercury Lounge for $35), the question that arises is was it worth it? Without a doubt, yes.