Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Vieux Farka Toure Kicks Ass on The Secret – How About the Special Guests?

Many years ago, a bunch of early jam band guys got together and decided to make a tribute to Muddy Waters. The result was a lacklustre album called Fathers and Sons (it’s easy to find, if you really want to hear it). The guys from the Butterfield Blues Band and their friends were bigger fans of Muddy’s than he was of them, but probably since it beat working as the handyman at Chess Records (which is what the guy who might have been the greatest blues slide guitarist of all time did when he wasn’t on tour or in the studio), Waters did the album. And phoned it in. Fast forward a little more than forty years: some of the big names on the American jam band circuit have discovered powerhouse Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure (the oldest son of the great Ali Farka Toure). And they’re all over his new album, The Secret. The biggest secret here is that almost all of them elevate their game – with one exception, this isn’t a bunch of white wannabes patronizing somebody from another tradition whose music they admire. For the most part, this is a clinic in how musicians from different cultures can create real alchemy if they’re inspired.

What’s nicest to see is that Toure is allowed to be the star he is, doubletracking and tripletracking here and the result is exhilarating. Acoustic rhythm guitarist Ali Magassa holds it down incisively and hypnotically with broken chords and simple, direct riffs over the loping calabash and djembe of Souleymane Kane. The first track, Sokosondou sets the stage for what’s to come with an endless succession of molten lava hammer-ons and hypnotic call-and-response vocals in Toure’s native dialect. Toure plays acoustic on the second cut, Aigna, where Derek Trucks does a surprisingly killer evocation of a sitar with his slide guitar, livening up the dusky atmospherics, getting darker and growlier as it goes on. Guess all that hanging out with Susan Tedeschi has been a good thing for him! The fourth track, Ali is a vertigo-inducing polyrhythmic forest of guitars, Toure throwing in a subtle, ominous chromatic allusion once in awhile

The first of the Malian/American hybrids, here, Watch Out is a swaying, funky number featuring Eric Krasno (of the generic Soulive and dubious Lettuce), who contributes some biting, vibrato-toned incisions with a little wah thrown in for good measure. Aaron Neville, who knows a little something about hypnotic grooves, hangs back with the beat and adds terse, smart organ fills; Toure winds it out with one of his unstoppable, stunningly precise, adrenalizing solos. A boisterously swaying, mostly acoustic number, Wonda Guay has Toure lingering overhead like an out-of-control helicopter. The title track, a hypnotic, resolute instrumental features a guitar track by his late father along with spiky textures from Ganda Tounkara’s ngoni and Cheikh Diallo’s distant flute atmospherics. It’s one of those tracks where it’s hard to figure out who’s playing what – you just get lost in it. The poignantly catchy closing track, Touri, is much the same. Borei, a fast, shuffling concert favorite is a feast of Toure textures, fast fluid runs, chords blasting on the beat and a searing, mostly one-note solo midway through.

The most traditional desert blues song here, Sankare Diadje has a typical call-and- response over a hypnotic, circular two-chord theme. Meandering, midtempo and ominously modal, Gido features John Scofield, who slinks through a wary, slowly furtive chromatically-charged solo and only puts the bite on once, at the very end, when he can’t contain himself any longer. Amani Quay begins with a gorgeous twelve-string acoustic intro that gives way to a shuffling, hypnotic groove, Toure picking it up and blasting through yet another rapidfire solo, this one a little sunbaked and slightly restrained. The only dud here features the clown prince of wretched jamband excess, Dave Matthews. When you put this on your ipod, you’ll want to delete track three. But what a pleasant surprise this is – and reason to check out what Derek Trucks and Eric Krasno have been up to lately.

June 11, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vieux Farka Toure Burns His Guitar

Vieux Farka Toure didn’t really burn his guitar, at least the way Hendrix burned his. He just turned in an incandescent performance. It’s a useful rule of thumb that if a performer plays well in daylight, he or she will rip up whatever joint they’re in come nightfall. Or maybe Toure’s just a morning person. Thursday afternoon in Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, the Malian guitarist didn’t let the crushing tropical heat and humidity phase him, blasting through one long, hypnotic, minimalistically bluesy number after another.

Like his father, desert blues pioneer Ali Farka Toure, he’ll hang on a chord for minutes at a clip, building tension sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes with savage abandon. That intensity – along with a long, pointless percussion solo- is what got the audience – an impressively diverse mix of daycamp kids and their chaperones, office workers and smelly trendoids – on their feet and roaring. Using his signature icy, crystalline, Albert Collins-esque tone, he took his time getting started, subtly varying his dynamics. What he does is ostensibly blues, inasmuch as his assaultive riffage generally sticks within the parameters of the minor-key blues scale. But the spacious, slowly unwinding melodies are indelibly Malian, with the occasional latin tinge or a shift into a funkier, swaying rhythm. This time out the band included a bass player along with Toure’s steady second guitarist, playing spikily hypnotic vamps on acoustic, along with a sub drummer who was clearly psyched to be onstage and limited himself to a spirited, thumping pulse, and a duo of adrenalized percussionists, one on a large, boomy calabash drum.

Lyrics don’t seem to factor much into this guy’s songwriting: a couple of numbers featured call-and-response on the chorus in Toure’s native tongue, but otherwise it was all about the guitar. As the energy level rose, he’d launch into one volley after another of blistering 32nd-note hammer-ons. And he wouldn’t waste them – after he’d taken a crescendo up as far as he could, he’d signal to the band and in a split second they’d end the song cold. It’s hard to think of another player who blends purposefulness with blinding speed to this degree (although, again, Albert Collins comes to mind – although Toure is more playful than cynical). Toure’s show this past spring at le Poisson Rouge was the last on an obviously exhausting tour: he’d sprint as far as he could, then back off when it was obvious that he needed a breather. Thursday was more of a clinic in command: Toure was completely in control this time out. Like most great guitarists, he spends a lot of time on the road (and has a killer new live album just out, very favorably reviewed here), so you can expect another New York appearance sooner than later.

August 2, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Vieux Farka Toure – Live

A characteristically intense, often exhilarating album by one of the great guitarists of our time. Vieux Farka Toure’s dad Ali Farka Toure was one of the inventors of duskcore, the patiently meandering, hypnotic desert blues. Unlike his dad, Vieux Farka Toure is not exactly a patient player, but in the family tradition he’s also invented his own style of music. Whether it’s blues, or an electrified and electrifying version of Malian folk music is beside the point. He may be playing in a completely different idiom, but Vieux Farka Toure’s approach is essentially the same as Charlie Parker’s, creating mini-symphonies out of seemingly endless, wild volleys of notes within a very simple chord structure. Bird played the blues; sometimes Toure does. Other times he just jams on a single chord. Whatever the case, Toure is the rare fret-burner who still manages to make his notes count for something: this album isn’t just mindless Buckethead or Steve Vai-style shredding. The obvious comparison (and one which invites a lot of chicken-or-the-egg questions, which may be academic) is to hypnotic Mississippi hill country bluesmen like Junior Kimbrough and Will Scott.

Toure’s attack is fluid and precise, utilizing lightning-fast hammer-ons whether he’s sticking to the blues scale, or working subtle shifts in timbre and rhythm during the songs’ quieter passages. He plays with a cool, watery, chorus-box tone very reminiscent of Albert Collins. Here he’s backed by an acoustic rhythm guitarist who holds it down with smooth yet prickly repetitive riffs, along with percussion, sometimes bass and a guest guitarist or two (Australian slide player Jeff Lang converses and eventually duels with him memorably on one track). The album collects several of the hottest moments of a 2009 European and Australian tour.

The midtempo opening number is a teaser, only hinting at the kind of speed Toure is capable of. As with several of the other numbers here, call-and-response is involved, this time with band members (later on he tries to get the audience to talk back to him in his own vernacular, with particularly mystified results). The slow jam that serves as the second track here is a study in dynamics and tension-building up to the ecstatic wail of the next cut.

A couple of songs here work a boisterous, reggae-tinged groove; another echoes the thoughtful, Castles Made of Sand side of Hendrix. When Toure’s taken the energy as high as anyone possibly could, sometimes he’ll stop cold and end the song there rather than doing something anticlimactic. He winds up the album with a big blazing boogie with a trick ending and then a stomp featuring a couple of characteristically paint-peeling solos along with a breakdown where the band takes it low and suspenseful until Toure is ready to wail again. If lead guitar is your thing, this is somebody you need to know – and somebody you really ought to see live. Like most of the great lead guitarists, Toure pretty much lives on the road – his next NYC gig is at Metrotech Park in Brooklyn at noon on July 29.

July 2, 2010 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Meta and the Cornerstones and Vieux Farka Toure Live in NYC 4/27/10

Wednesday night at le Poisson Rouge, one of the best doublebills in New York so far this year featured a headliner straight from Africa and an opener one step removed. Roots reggae band Meta and the Cornerstones have a Senegalese-American frontman along with band members from Lebanon, Israel and Texas, to name a few places. Bouncing their way through a set as diverse as the musicians’ origins, they reaffirmed their status as one of New York’s most captivating live acts. With two guitars, rhythm section, percussion, backup singer and a terrific keyboardist playing through organ and piano settings instead of the cheesy synthesized brass that the Jamaicans have been using for so long now, they set the tone for the night by getting at least 80% of the crowd on their feet and dancing throughout their too-brief 40-minute set. Among the songs were a wistful Marleyesque reminiscence about a night spent on a rooftop; a rousing anthem with a big, dramatic overture of an introduction dedicated to peace in the Middle East; a bracing minor-key narrative about a weed dealer in the hood hiding out from the cops; a fiery, upbeat song about the dispossessed underclass featuring a brief diversion into dub; a Brazilian-inflected dance tune, and then one dedicated to Senegal. The keyboardist took a solo using a stark, reverberating oldschool Arp synth setting, from minor-key wariness to soaring, jazzy flights down the scale and earned a roaring ovation. A surprising number of people left after they were done – their loss, because in his New York debut, Malian desert blues scion Vieux Farka Toure put one of the most exhilarating displays of guitar virtuosity this city’s seen in recent months.

It was the last stop on Ali Farka Toure’s oldest son’s latest American tour – he opens the World Cup festivities with a performance in Johannesburg this summer – and as expected it was a party. Playing through an icy wash of chorus and reverb somewhere between Albert Collins and late-period Ike Turner, he ran a series of simple, catchy, blues based phrases at mind-boggling, 32nd-note speed. Watching this guy fire off one endless salvo after another brought to mind an old John Coltrane comment: a writer once asked why he played so many glissandos, to which Coltrane retorted, “Those aren’t glissandos – they’re arpeggios.” Most guitarists of the Steve Vai or Buckethead school play like a fireman who’s lost control of a high pressure hose, hanging on for dear life as it randomly knocks over everything in its path. Toure shreds – but soulfully. His first-class four-piece backing unit – drums, calabash and an acoustic rhythm guitarist often playing in tandem with the bassist – were tight, inspired and seemingly invigorated for one last show, following every cue in a split-second as Toure would introduce a new rhythm or motif, or pull back and give himself a breather, getting a clapalong or some call-and-response vocalese going with the crowd.

The secret to his success? Simplicity. While his famous father would stay in the same key for twenty minutes at a clip, this particular Toure fils likes two-chord vamps, funky minor-key riffs and what he calls reggae but is basically just raw, primitive, pounding rock (the percussion section had a blast with a couple of these). He started the first numbers out slowly, rubato, feeling his way into them (once with a stark Middle Eastern riff) until the band picked up and then the race was on. The quietest number pulsed and blasted along on a slinky 6/8 soul beat, crazed, percussive sharpshooter guitar juxtaposed with silence as Toure methodically chose his spots. The drums went three on four for an especially hypnotic effect during the loudest and most intense of the final numbers.

By the time they reached the encore, Toure seemed pretty much out of gas but reached back for three long, incendiary crescendos, various members of both bands dancing around the stage (one of the promoters as well, though she was shy), finally leaving the stage to the percussionists who kept a volcanic rumble going until it was clear that the rest of the band really wasn’t coming back.

April 29, 2010 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – I Speak Fula

‘Even if there is a war going on and it is difficult to travel, a griot, with his ngoni slung around his back, was always allowed through, because it was known that he was going to play for a leader, and perhaps act as an intermediary for political negotiations,” remarked Bassekou Kouyate recently. Where he comes from, music has a few more more important functions than mere entertainment. The Malian bandleader’s axe of choice is the ngoni, a stringed instrument commonly referred to as the ancestor of the banjo with a similar clanking tone, rapid attack and decay. He gets major props in his native land for resurrecting the instrument from obscurity, adding both new techniques as well as western influences and modern electronic guitar effects. It’s not known if he’s ever been pressed into duty as a negotiator between warring factions. On US tour with Bela Fleck starting this month promoting their somewhat defiant new album I Speak Fula, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba have come to conquer.

This is urban Malian music: spiky, circular and hypnotic in the indigenous folk tradition, but packed with imaginative licks and production touches that reveal how diverse Kouyate’s influences are, from fellow Malian Ali Farka Toure to Hendrix. It’s a mix of originals as well as new arrangements of historical ballads from over the years. What Tinariwen has done for the Tuaregs, these guys could do for what’s coming out of the cool kids’ ghetto blasters on the streets of Bamako – this stuff absolutely rocks.

The cd opens energetically with boisterous, spiraling ngoni and kora (West African harp)- throughout the album, interplay, much of it absolutely psychedelic, abounds. The first of the two most extraordinary tracks here is a tribute to Kouyate’s brother – who died while the album was being recorded – with Kouyate and Malian desert blues scion Vieux Farka Toure playing dizzying wah-wah clusters around each other. The other, Ladon, is a feast of scurrying blues runs, Kouyate showing off his bag of tricks with a big rapidfire crescendo of blues licks that could be American, or not. The band builds this to an unexpectedly explosive coda at the end: acoustic Malian heavy metal.

The closest thing to rock here is the impressively feminist Musow, fast and flurrying with wah-wah ngoni, building up to the end of the verse with a neat three-chord sequence, along with a big 6/8 ballad that could be British or Appalachian except for the language, Kouyate coming in hard against Vieux Farka Toure’s pensive, spacious guitar, nudging the guitarist to elevate his game. There’s also a swaying number that incorporates what sound like elements of both delta and Piedmont blues (or maybe not – this is where all that stuff originated, anyway), a dedication to Kouyate’s wife and bandmate/singer Amy with an intense, hypnotic jam between ngoni and Zoumana Tereta’s fiddle, and the pensive Moustafa, where the ngoni sounds almost like a vibraphone. Definitely the most exciting thing to come out of Africa since Tinariwen’s latest, last year. The album, believe it or not, is out on Sub Pop (the folks who brought you Nirvana).

February 5, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Rough Guide to Blues Revival

Every now and then we all go to a concert where the opening act blows the headliner off the stage. This is the cd equivalent of that experience. Forget for a moment that this is titled the Rough Guide to Blues Revival (a dubious concept from the get-go): what’s most exciting here is the free bonus cd by 40-year-old Malian bluesman Samba Toure, a protege of Ali Farka Toure. In a particularly smart marketing move, the compilers decided to sweeten the deal by including it in the package at no extra charge, and for fans of the desert blues pantheon (think Tinariwen, Boubacar Traore, Vieux Farka Toure et al.) it’s a treat, ten sun-baked, trance-inducing tracks of eerily snaking guitar enhanced by fiddle, bass and percussion. By comparison to his mentor (no relation), Samba Toure delivers his vocals in a low, growling style in his native dialect.

 

Stylistically, Malian desert blues most closely resembles the Mississippi hill country style with few if any chord changes, instead building dynamically with a typically hypnotic feel. To call this stuff blues is sometimes a stretch, although Ali Farka Toure was influenced by American electric guitarists, an effect that translates to a certain extent here. Here, the instruments swirl and whirl around each other, stark sheets of fiddle mingling with the staccato ring of the guitars, the occasional flight of a flute line and the ever-present, persistent eight-note beat of the percussion. One of the tracks is happy, upbeat, tersely produced Afrobeat pop; otherwise, the songs aptly evoke the “cameraderie of the cigarette,” as Tinariwen’s Ibrahim Ag Alhabib has characterized the casual but impoverished nomadic milieu, passing a single smoke around a circle of conversation. The best cut here is the last, Foda Diakaina (called an instrumental but it’s not), dizzying flute spinning around the guitar, bass eventually climbing to the heights with the rest of the band.

 

As far as the rest of the anthology goes, the selections here seem absolutely random, like the kind of cd that you find at the counter at the druggist or off-license for a fiver or less. For apparently no rhyme or reason (other than the label telling the compilers that if they want the rights to the hit, they’ll have to also take a couple of duds along with it to seal the deal), this mixes choice cuts by the Blind Boys of Alabama (You Gotta Move rearranged gospel-style), a quiet, Hendrix-inspired number by Deborah Coleman and tracks by Irma Thomas and Shemekia Copeland along with possibly well-intentioned but ultimately cold, cliched, stale stuff by baby boomer faves like Robben Ford, Eric Bibb, and Kim Simmonds & Savoy Brown. There’s also some more recent material including an utterly bizarre Pipeline ripoff by CC Adcock. The cd is out now worldwide except for the UK where it will be available May 5.

April 22, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment