call me dim: Hugh Masekela (left) at the Egg.
photo: Chris Shields
Egg, April 13
listening to online samples of his recent studio work, I expected
an evening with South African Hugh Masekela to consist of
unassuming fuzak perfect for sunbathing with an icy libation
in hand and nothing too compelling on the mind. While I’m
aware of his iconic hit single “Grazing in the Grass,” his
work with Paul Simon and some of his harder-edged, Fela Kuti-inspired
’70s songs, his latest studio offerings tend to emphasize
the lighter side of Afropop, giving one reason to think that
perhaps the living legend’s fire had dimmed a bit.
fears were drop-kicked back to “ass out of u
and me”-ville when Masekela and his ace band of Soweto-
and Botswana-born musicians took the stage and immediately
laid down a sinuously serious groove, kicking off their 20-date
tour of America with a show that moved the audience emotionally
as well as physically.
Albany crowds are often polite but somewhat staid—during the
second song, “The Boy’s Doin’ It,” Masekela let us know that
he was having none of that. Revealing the sly sense of humor
that would be a constant throughout the night, Masekela informed
the audience, “You’re trying to be cool, right? Shit—sorry,
baby—too late for that.” Leading the audience in a lusty call-and-response,
not giving up on us until he deemed our singing quality sufficient,
Masekela made the audience a working part of his band. The
multi-racial, multi-aged concertgoers sat in the palm of his
hand for the rest of the evening.
Comprising a drummer, two keyboardists, a flute-playing saxophonist,
and bass and rhythm guitarists, Masekela’s backing band covered
the musical bases gamely (with all except the drummer singing
backup), leaving the wizened frontman free to play the parts
of comedian, village shaman and social commentator. While
rightfully renowned for the burnished sound and deep jazz
chops of his flugelhorn playing, Masekela is also an accomplished
singer, subjecting his musicians to repeated (but good-natured)
cutting contests to see who could top the other with their
improvs. Masekela’s vocal range and expressiveness went blow
for blow with that of his sidemen’s instruments.
The musical highlight came toward the end of the first set,
when Masekela dedicated his epic “Stimela (Coal Train)” to
those who work under treacherous conditions for little-to-no
pay. Opening with 16th-note chops on cowbells and drums (which
represented the approaching train filled with dispossessed
mi grants), Masekela and band poured their souls into the
elegy, John Selolwane making a particular impact with vocal
and guitar solos that brought George Benson to mind. As Masekela’s
voice ended the 15-minute song with mournful train whistles,
I couldn’t help but think we had just witnessed a performance
on par with Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” As the audience leapt
to their feet with appreciation, the visibly moved Masekela
basked in the adulation for a minute before flooring us with
“Grazing in the Grass.” “Grazing,” always a quintessential
summer song, dissipated the darkness and closed the set on
an exhilarating high.
The second set, while lighter in tone than the first, featured
stellar versions of “The Marketplace,” Fela Kuti’s “Lady”
and the anthem “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela).” Fellow
traveler Kuti once said, “Music is the weapon of the future.”
Masekela proved that the peaceful warrior still has plenty
of fight left in him.
and His Enemies
Helsinki, April 14
These guys lived up to the considerable buzz that emanated
from their appearance at Helsinki last year and the wildly
fawning reviews reprinted on their Web site. “Unreviewable?”
Oh, yeah. So what am I doing here trying to write about them?
Contractual obligation. Here goes.
Jonathan Spottiswoode and his six-piece backing band floored
the house at Helsinki with a rangy, smart, emotional and decidedly
non-linear set of great songs.
No, they don’t dress up like that incredible promo picture
where they look like stragglers at a gay wedding, had there
been gay weddings on the Archipelago in the 1930s. They looked
and acted quite normal, and they sang and played like bandits.
For a point of reference, Spottiswoode has often been compared
to Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen; I hear a little of that, but
I also would point to Ray Davies and Oscar Wilde. There’s
a lot of gregariousness, a lot of story-telling, a lot of
detached observations. Thoughts are sung with asterisks, which
lead to more thoughts that qualify the earlier ones. Lyrics
approach sublime poetry, the drama onstage approaches theater.
In lesser hands this sort of thing would be precious and insufferable;
Spottiswoode and company charge through it with such a sure-footed
and unified vision that one can only catch one’s breath and
wait, expectantly, for whatever comes next. Rarely have I
seen a performance so chock-full of the intricacies of humanity.
Or one that’s so goddamn fun.
Everybody in the band played expertly. Ripley McMahon understands
the vocabulary of the guitar, from dark Goth chords, to breezy
Brazilian finger picking to Ennio Morricone heroics. One short
Weimer-style cabaret piece featured three of the band members
each playing variously out-of-time. That was followed by a
direct blast about not wanting to go. No elaboration, just
Spottiswoode singing “I don’t want to go” punctuated with
an in-the-pocket funk groove and peppery Stax-Volt horns.
I’d love to see this group on a huge stage in front of a marginally
intelligent audience, say a Radiohead audience. They’d kill.
Spottiswoode seems like exactly the kind of guy who’d get
a big fat hit, then refuse to play it in concert simply it
because it bored him. I’d love to see that theory get tested.
Egg, April 12
Robert Earl Keen is a curiosity on the Americana/Texas singer-
songwriter landscape. He has some of the poetic ambition of
many of his more popular or more critically acclaimed predecessors
and peers, yet he has also found himself the object of adoration
primarily of a cult-driven, Texas kegger following.
He is, in short, the songwriter of choice for the Texas frat-boy
crowd. He’s not as literary or blazingly gifted as Townes
Van Zandt. (Keen can, at best, be accused of dealing Hemingway
a glancing blow.) He’s not as edgy as Rodney Crowell, and
he’s not as genre-testing as his friend Lyle Lovett. (He counts
among his greatest influences Loudon Wainwright III and Guy
Clark—and that seems about right.)
Keen also gets a little ’90s alt-country cred for having shared
the mic with Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins and Gillian Welch.
But, really, the Keen atmosphere at the Egg conjured up a
smaller-scale, less aesthetically challenged Jimmy Buffett.
For the uninitiated, stepping into a Keen concert can be something
like entering a conversation at its middle: You get the gist
but don’t fully buy in to what’s going on.
At the Egg, one could see the components: the anthemic flourishes,
the spirit, the yarns spun in song and the down-home patter.
But Keen seemed to be constantly nearing and never arriving;
one wanted something more, especially at a venue that has
seen the best of Americana in the past couple of years.
Keen, dressed in casual black and sporting a baseball cap
he had purchased that very day at the Baseball Hall of Fame,
is a solid performer, with a tight, crack band. (The size
of the band and the scope of their equipment prompted a move
from the Swyer to the Hart Theatre, leaving yawning spaces
in the audience.) One of his hallmark tunes, “Road Goes on
Forever,” was an early highlight, and a solo rendition of
“This Old Porch” was moving. But despite the evident songwriting
strengths (and a clutch of people in bent cowboy hats and
pointy-toed cowboy boots who seemed to enjoy the concert more
than most), one got the sense all night of being in the presence
of Texas songwriting’s second—or third—tier.
Texan Terri Hendrix opened the show with a sturdy, if unremarkable,
opening set. She was accompanied by steel-guitar legend and
producer Lloyd Maines (who’s also father to a Dixie Chick).
Both he and vaunted Bad Livers banjo man Danny Barnes, who
guested with Keen, seemed underused.