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Published: 2001/10/09
by Scott Caffrey

Amandla, Maxwell’s, Hoboken, NJ- 9/20

Opening for Robert Randolph will some day prove to be enough firepower to launch an unknown band. But since Double R is still pressing on from “underground,” your band better have a star of its own.

Enter Amandla, anchored by its leader and visionary Claude Coleman, Jr., better known as Ween’s full-time drummer. Undertaking today’s popular musical avenue, Amandla serves as Coleman’s own side project. A soulful group that blends many influences and genres the band served as the perfect hors d’oeuvrefor now.

Providing mystery for its own shrouded aura, the band ostensibly swiped its name from an obscure 1988 Miles Davis record, which has been the subject of much scrutiny and confusion over the past decade. Reportedly, the title track for Davis’ “Amandla” (which also appears as “H Man” on his Crucial bootleg, a mislabeled and unofficial vinyl release with cover text reading Prince with Miles Davis and Friends) was written by Prince during writing sessions with Davis. Alright, enough with the minutiae. But it does provide some insight into Coleman’s new musical vision, albeit hazy—which just may be the effect Coleman is shooting for.

Opening the show with the very appropriate “On a Ferry,” the song was a suitable fit for a New Jersey rock club within spitting distance of the former Twin Towers. The lyrics “On a ferry in the water/ with five hundred of us in all/ I threw my eyes across the ocean/ And the sea made me feel small” calmly recounted the horror less than two weeks prior that many in attendance were forced to endure. It helped paint a picture of people like my own wife who witnessed the aftermath herself, on a ferry. Few, including myself, knew what to make of the song until it was digested. It may have been written some time ago, but its effect that night was truly moving.

Sensing a bit of the crowd’s agita with its uncomfortable applause, the melancholy was quickly washed away as Coleman traded in his acoustic guitar for the more comfortable clime of his kit, perched front and center for the drumming front man, and launched into some get-up rockin’ funk. “The Best” kicked in next with a Prince-like psych-pop that slowly peeled people off the wall, onto their feet, and away from the bar. Not bad for a band no one even knew would be here until just a few hours prior to show time. The song has a distinct country-like intro that moves quickly into a pleasing guitar jam.

The Elvis Costello flourish of “Call Your Own” showed another side of the music; that of a broken heart through a Dear John song. A rare cover choice followed in the form of Todd Rundgren’s “The People.” A poignant selection if only by title, the tune was played to a blasting and heavy charge complete with some frenetic Pete Townshend guitar-work by Amandla’s groovy looking axe-man. Dubbed “Baby Hendrix” by the crowd for his prominent afro and leather pants, he may have the look but his playing is more reminiscent of David “T” Walker or Mike Sembello.

Moving next to the title track from Amandla’s debut album, Falling Alone, this little ditty has the trappings of a great new radio track. The easy vibe and heartfelt lyrics provided for a mellow, atmospheric jam. The group’s harmonizing and ability to make an acoustic song sound earthy in an electric setting helped solidify their abilities.

As Amandla weaved in and out of organ-grinding groovers and Motown soul, the next trio of songs allowed some time for observation. Trying to explain new music and bands to friends can sometimes be challenging if the description cannot be simply stated. In just such a situation, the only way I know how is to compare it/them to other established musicians and bands. To explain Amandla, I’ll do the same. Understandably, comparisons can sometimes kill a new band, but the following list serves only as a personal attempt at whittling down into a genus, not a pigeonhole. Take the verve of Prince’s funkiest purple days, the Righteous Brothers’ heartfelt, blue-eyed soul, the energy of Stevie Wonder, and the passion of Marvin Gaye, you’ll begin to get a taste for Amandla.

While my distraction may point out that Amandla has a bit of a ways to go at constructing a concert, “I Think I Don’t Mind” snapped my attention back to the stage. Quite easily the best song of the night, it helped solidify my list above. Coleman’s vocals were the focus and the distorted mic effect made them outstanding. It hearkens back to old-time “singing in a can” recordings. The band served more as congregation and backup than an opportunity for jaw-dropping dexterity or jamming. The music was simple but gave Coleman the soul and gospel sound needed to complete the lyrics’ sad intent.

It’s unclear as to what CC, Jr. plans to make of this band. They’ve got a great look, a fresh, new sound, the angst to make it all work, and one of the scene’s greatest drummers. He may have said it best in Falling Alone’s liner notes: “This record and its accompanying songs were put together over a long period of time. Long enough so that almost two more records were made during the time this record idled on many different shelves.” Will the world see that duo of discs ever come to fruition? Ween gives itself long-enough breaks that it’s certainly possible. And judging from the raw affection with which it delivers in its live setting, I predict that we have not seen the last of Amandla.

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