Funky nine-piece Brooklyn band Mamarazzi scored themselves a prime slot opening for Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars last night at East River Park. It was trippy scene: the Himalayan Marching Band vamping behind a gaggle of women on stilts as they made their way down the stairs of the amphitheatre to the stage – no small achievement – with an electric rhythm section onstage keeping the beat, creating a wandering stereo effect. A line to the left of the arena formed for the free pizza that the sponsor of the event – a local chain – was giving away, a reminder that the dollar pizza places make better slices than these guys do! A poet from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe circle wowed the crowd with a spot-on critique of Facebook friends versus real ones. After that, the event’s somewhat reluctant emcee – who was funny despite himself- told the audience that since he’d gotten so famous, he could no longer leave the Lower East Side. But that was ok.
And then Mamarazzi launched into a twisting, turning series of grooves, from Afrobeat, to straight-up funk, to practically ska, then reggae and finally hip-hop and did all of it well. Keyboardist Rob Cohen switched between lush organ and echoey Rhodes piano over the hypnotic pulse of the drummer and three percussionists, with fiery accents from the tenor and baritone sax and a succession of vocalists. They started out slinky and hypnotic with the Afrobeat, then picked up the pace, Cohen’s swirling sheets of organ feeding the frenzy. Both sax players got long, sinewy solos; they eventually hit a woozy, quietly echoing interlude that the bubble of the twin horns brought back into focus. They brought up Bajah from the Dry Eye Crew to basically tell everyone that he was there – which took about five minutes.
But Tavi Fields, the hip-hop artist who followed him on the mic was tremendously good. She managed to make the connection between the current American depression, corporate surveillance, and civil war in Mali, each one of her lines setting up the next one. She continued to lead the band through a couple of less anxious numbers as they hit a reggae vibe, then switched out vocalists for the song that made them famous around the world, the guy said. It was an amusing one, poking fun at a gangster who’s “such a wankster,” and the peaceful crowd here agreed with him. Both the band and the audience wanted to keep the set going, but the Sierra Leone band was up next. How was their set? They’re a great live act, so it’s pretty much a guarantee that their show was a lot of fun. But one of the cool things about these free outdoor shows is that you can leave whenever you want and never feel bad about having wasted a ticket. For a look at how good they sounded in concert a couple of years ago, click here.