“We love to present amazing work from around the world that reflects the population of this city as well,” Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal said with relish, welcoming Imarhan onstage this past evening. Imarhan – whose name translates as “the posse” – are Algerian, not to be confused with the similarly named Imharhan, who are essentially the electric version of Malian traditional group Tartit. With two vintage Gibson guitars, incisively trebly bass, thumping drums and calabash, Imarhan play a distinctly North African take on American psychedelic and garage rock that resembles its northern hemispheric influences a lot more than loping Tuareg duskcore. Their music is faster, and louder, yet just as trippy as the sounds coming from deeper into the Maghreb.
The catchy, snapping bassline that anchored their first song of the night could have been a Zombies riff, the two guitars flinging out shards of minor-key chords. The second number was sort of a mashup of Tinariwen and Brian Jonestown Massacre. When the wah-wah guitar kicked in after the second verse as the bass ran a bouncy six-note blues riff over and over, it was as adrenalizing as it was hypnotic – and then the band ended it suddenly, cold. After that, the snarling Brian Jones-style blues licks – a more focused Sympathy For the Devil, maybe – in the pounding, undulating song after that came as no surprise. What was unexpected was the long, gritty Haiballah Akhamouk guitar solo that took the song straight into a dust storm for extra unease.
Imarhan’s lyrics – in Tamasheq and Arabic – are brooding, pensive, often angry. They speak of longing, the exhaustion of war, the constant angst of life in exile, and once in awhile, guarded hope for a peaceful future. For those in the crowd unable to grasp those specifics, the group let the restlessness of the music speak for itself, particularly in the careening guitar lines of bandleader/Iyad Moussa Ben Abderahmane a.k.a. Sadam.
If there’s such a thing as heavy disco, it was the group’s fourth song, grounded by a bassline that at halfspeed would have been reggae but at this close-to-breakneck pace took on a snap and crackle beneath the radiant, ringing reverb of the guitars’ minor chords rang. They really went into overdrive after that, almost bluegrass speed, up to a big, defiant stadium rock chorus – by now most of the crowd, a mix of expats and the divergent demographics typically found at shows at the atrium space here – were on their feet and clapping along.
They flipped the script after that, bringing the music down, awash in resignation and regret before building back up to one of the night’s most ferociously bluesy crescendos, fueled by the bandleader’s offhandedly savage, heavy blues riffage on his old Gibson SG. From there the guitars spun out a sinister web over a lickety-split offbeat groove, then went in a psychedelic funk direction, almost an Algerian take on early Santana. Rhythms grew trickier and more traditional, bringing to mind Niger bands like Etran Finatawa, before the group picked up the pace again with a little sardonic hip-hop flavor.
The encores were an unexpectedly traditional, low-key duskcore tune that could have been a Tinariwen cover, and a ferocious final stomp with a grittily spiraling bass solo that was arguably the high point of the night. There have only been a few bands this loud at Lincoln Center in recent years – a reunion by legendary Detroit proto-punks Death, and an explosive early evening set by Moroccan rockers Hoba Hoba Spirit come to mind – but this was probably as heavy as any show anywhere in New York this evening.
The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space is next Thursday, May 10 at 7:30 with another powerful act, Detroit blues belter and bandleader Thornetta Davis. Get there early if you’re going.