Last night at Lincoln Center, Delgrès guitarist Pascal Danaë opened the trio’s headlining set with a hypnotic slide guitar boogie riff as sousaphone player Rafgee played a fat, bubbly, almost subsonic groove and drummer Baptiste Brondy – who played with Danaë in French-Brazilian band Rivière Noire – thumped along with a punchy New Orleans second-line beat. Then without missing a step, the band segued into a brisk, roughhewn, major-key blues that evoked Mississippi hill country as much as it did Chicago wildman Hound Dog Taylor. Except that Danaë was singing in the creole dialect of his native Guadeloupe.
The band take their name from Louis Delgrès, the late 18th century Guadeloupian freedom fighter who is remembered as a Nathan Hale-like martyr who chose execution rather than concede to the French invaders. Since a lot of Guadeloupian refugees ended up in New Orleans, the group’s propulsive blend of growling American blues, Crescent City rhythms and circling island folk themes makes more sense than might be apparent.
Danaë dedicated the next tune, Mo Jodi – meaning “die today” – to both the band’s namesake and “everyone fighting for freedom around the world.” Brondy’s heavy, rat-a-tat tom-tons anchored the sousaphone’s catchy riffs as Rafgee slunk upward, Danaë’s chords and jangly fragments punching through the mix.
They bought it down a little after that with a simmering, syncopated minor-key sway, Danaë singing with more of a drawl, just guitar and drums for the first verse. Name another band where the sousaphone plays the big hooks so much of the time!
Their next tune, Mr. President had a defiantly emphatic drive and a refrain of “Leave, leave, leave,” that went unnoticed with the English speakers in the crowd but resonated deliciously with those who knew a little French. Maybe sensing the lack of reaction, Danaë switched to English for a driving, rhythmic breakup anthem, then took a detour into a spare, elegaic lament for a fallen hero that eventually picked up steam with a terse slide guitar solo.
They followed with a slow, quasi trip-hop ballad, winding up with a moody trumpet solo from Rafgee, then a romping R.L. Burnside-style number: “We are no different,” Danaë reminded a diverse crowd. Their creole Led Zep medley got everybody howling, but he got serious immediately afterward with an insistent antiwar anthem, the most rock-oriented of the band’s originals.
What was most impressive about this set was that Delgres had already played a two-hour set earlier in the day – outdoors in downtown Brooklyn, as the scorching sun reached its midday peak. Basking in the Lincoln Center air conditioning, they were still sweating hard by the show’s third song. Delgres’ tour continues with shows at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on July 7 and 8, then they’re off to Europe. And the next free show at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is July 19 at 7:30 PM with Afro-Colombian legends Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto. Get there early if you’re going.