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Don’t call me dim: Hugh Masekela (left) at the Egg.

photo: Chris Shields

Still Fired Up

By Mike Hotter

Hugh Masekela

The Egg, April 13

After 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.

My 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.

Ye Olde Storyteller

Spottiswoode and His Enemies

Club 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.

—Paul Rapp

Not Quite There

Robert Earl Keen

The 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.

—Erik Hage

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