Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, The Middle East, Cambridge, MA- 1/23
As I charged like a bolt into the downstairs area of the Middle East to get away from the bone-jarring-tissue-penetrating wind chill that is characteristic of New England winters, I noticed there were very few people in the building. In fact, you could get a spot right in front of the stage without percolating through a packed floor. However, after 10 minutes of acclimating myself to the sudden warmth of this cozy venue, people started to show up in droves. One member of the eclectic crowd that habitually attends these types of concerts imparted to me that I should get ready for a long night of organs, horns and percussion, but what took the stage still overwhelmed my already tattered senses.
There were 11 members that comprised Antibalas this evening: Three percussionists, four horn players, two guitarists, a bassist, and a keyboardist. The term "big band" does not do Antibalas any justice, lets just refer to them as "astronomical." The first song got the crowd right into it. A simple bassline to start the show exploded into a percussive gallimaufry of sound that made you move and groove to the beat. The biggest defining characteristic of Antibalas is that they are big on music and small on lyrics. In fact, 20 minutes and numerous solos (trombone, alto sax, piano and baritone sax) passed in the first song before any lyrics were sung. This is pretty much the standard composition for any one of Antibalas’s songs.
After the first song, Duke (the lead vocalist) greeted us and introduced the next song, "Payback Africa." This was a very pleasing and upbeat piece that features the saxes first playing a riff and the organ imitating it note for note which eventually opened up to a warm toned breakdown. The next song was a horn driven piece that made use of a lot of solos and vocals at the end. During this song, a few lucky people got to climb on stage and cavort with the band for a while. This song dissolved into riffy/heavy-on-the-horn jam in which a prevalent bassline held everything together and permeated into the crowds collective soul while satiating their groove hungry appetites. The last song of the set was prefaced by a question from Duke: "Who is this America we speak of today?" A funky bass and drum combination with jaunting horns provided an answer while the crowd caterwauled "YA-DA-DA-HOOOO" throughout the song.
The second set opened with a fast paced number. A flute was infused with the rest of the horn section giving the main riff a "wall of sound" constitution. This led into a very long musically percussive excursion that featured most of the band members taking turns soloing with some vocals coming in to round out the song and finish it off. One member from the horn section pontificated to us "every time we come to Boston, everybody (the crowd) looks at us like we’re a painting." As the third song of the set was getting under way, "ORDER IN THE COURT!" was bellowed by the said horn player while a back breaking musical campaign ensued. A big trombone solo with the force of a mack truck hitting you head on followed as "Big brother is not watching you, we are watching big brother!" was spoken into the mic by another member of the horn section. The climax of the show came with the ensuing sax solo that traversed the musical spectrum through ear-piercing highs and mind crushing lows, making everyone move and cheer.
The final song of the set was one of the more standard vocal driven songs which concluded with a sparkling organ solo. As the band returned on stage for the encore, the horn section chimed in again with "we strip mined the f*** out of this planet, lets do it to mars!" The band then went on to finish off the night with a dazzling orchestration of horn solos over droning rhythm guitars, organs and percussion.
Music in general has the ability to take the edge off of everything and ease your tired and overworked mind. This is exactly what I was looking for when Antibalas took the stage and they certainly did not skimp on anything, the music was tight and the random quotes from the members were a humorous added touch. The only thing to do on a night as cold as this is to immerse yourself in warm music and smile. Mahalo.