Arts Festival Review: Antibalas

Published: Wed 10 Mar 2010 03:54 PM
Arts Festival Review: AntibalasReviewed by Tyler Hersey
Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra
The Pacific Blue Festival Club
March 9, 2010
Have you ever had that dream where you're on the train in a foreign city, surrounded by people of every creed and culture, and the entire car erupts into a spontaneous party? What begins as a waft of rhythm floating through the window and down the aisle turns into tapping toes and swaying limbs. The seats start rocking back and forth, bodies moving in time to a groove that rises up from the tracks. One adventurous person who can't bear it any longer stands up and begins to shake their hips. Trills and catcalls fill the air, and immediately the whole place leaps to its feet and begins to seriously get down.
Yeah, I've never had that dream either, but it's exactly what an Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra show feels like.
I'm usually skeptical of bands who list a musical genre in their name, but the irresistible Antibalas combination of heavy African polyrhythms, Latin grooves, and zip-lock tight jazz horn arrangements tore down the Pacific Blue Festival Club in what was easily the biggest party of this year's festival slate. For years I've been hearing about what a great time Antibalas put on, and I knew the largely 20-something audience which squeezed into the cramped rows of Shed 6 couldn't sit still for long.
True to form, it took one and a half songs (approximately 13 minutes) for most of the crowd to pour down the aisles and flood the front of the stage with gyrations and hands in the air. A few of the greyer heads remained stationary, but smiles spread amongst them faster than the flu on public transportation, and by the time the band rolled into a sizzling salsa reading of “Se Chiflo” a roomful of Antibalas converts were lapping up every conga roll and saxophone lick the band could deliver.
Informally conducted by saxophonists Stuart Bogie and Martin Perna, the ten-member group boasts three horn players, two guitarists, two percussionists, a wicked keyboard wizard, and a rock solid rhythm section stuck deeper in the pocket than two loose coins after your jeans are put through the wash. Alternating between power groove throw-downs and downbeat tropicalia, the band tore through selections from their four studio albums, plus covers of musical and political inspirations Bob Marley and Fela Kuti.
Keyboardist Victor Axelrod proved as impressive in a live setting as he is on record, churning out funky right hand leads on his vintage Wurlitzer and retro-sixties organ comps which propelled the band through their first few songs. His reggae-singed tones went down a treat with Wellington's dub-crazy audience, who have unknowingly heard his playing and production skills on everything from Amy Winehouse and Lilly Allen records to the album you couldn't walk down Cuba Street without hearing for most of the 2000s, the Easy Star All-Star's mashup hit Dub Side of the Moon.
Combining the fantastic visual elements of Latin big bands, African dance troupes, and sweaty rock combos, New York-based Antibalas look and sound as if they were all just passengers on the same subway train who decided to form a band during the ride from the Latino neighborhoods of the Bronx, through the garage rock haunts of Manhattan's East Village and hipster lofts of Brooklyn, finally ending in the Afro-Caribbean blocks of Queens.
Lead vocalist and conga player Amayo, face painted in white lines and swathed in loose African-style garb, traded dance steps and call and response vocals with the rest of the band, each of whom tackled solo and supporting duties with equal flair. Every player can step up and take the lead, but is just as content to hold down a simple groove to propel the band and audience through 90 minutes of non-stop dancing overlaid with stunning musicianship and political activism.
By the time the band reached the halfway point in a crispy high hat and snare driven re-imagining of Marley's “Rat Race”, the audience engulfed the stage, turning what began as a sit-down concert into a wild celebration of universal rhythm.
Press release: Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra & St. Vincent
Arts Festival website: Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2010

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