Antibalas, Williamsburg Waterfront Park, Brooklyn, NY – 8/18
For those that call New York City and the tri-state area home, there is never a shortcoming of live music to check out no matter what your craving ears desire. However, for the afrobeat enthusiasts there has been a very noticeable void amongst the community over the past few years. Individually, the guys in the Brooklyn based powerhouse, Antibalas, have been very busy with various projects which at times has left many fans fantasizing of the old days when you could catch them on a monthly basis at the very least.
Aside from the long hours put in for the industry acclaimed Broadway show Fela!, Stuart Bogie (saxophone) put in time touring with Iron and Wine in addition to showcasing his fun-ky group Super Human Happiness which also features Antibalas members Luke O’mally (guitar), Miles Arntzen (drums), Eric Biondo (trumpet) and Nikhil Yerawadekar (bass). Miles additionally found some time to play with his own group EMEFE while Jordan Mclean (trumpet) focused on personal projects as well, in addition to working on the launch of a new record label. The new self titled album Antibalas and the demands of their touring schedule finds Luke once again dedicating himself to the band whole heartedly as he has kept to the side over the past couple years focusing on an array of projects outside of the Antibalas realm. It was a no brainer that the ever prolific Victor Axelrod (keys), AKA Ticklah, would be up to his neck with other projects considering his love for both production and performing. Axelrod and the Easy Star All Stars delivered big time on the recently released reggae version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Founding Antibalas member Martin Perna (baritone sax) was successful in his pursuit of a Masters degree in Education Technology and also managed to log many hours working for Dubspot, a digital music production school in New York City. This list could literally go on and on but the point was made and the fact remains that Antibalas is back. Not only are they back, but they are making new music and if Saturday was any indication they are most importantly, enjoying themselves.
With a line that stretched around the block, the waterfront park in Williamsburg filled in at a good pace and it wasn’t long before the place was packed. Local vendors set up around the perimeter of the park providing a good variety of local food and naturally, alcohol. The crowd was noticeably loose by the time the opening act finished and the vibe was well received by the guys in Antibalas. The band took to the stage and with an extra punch provided by the Dap King horns they jumped into “Dirty Money,” the opening track off their new album. Backed by a classic afrobeat shuffle, Amayo pleaded with the crowd to have some “good intentions and some responsibility on your way to spending your DIRTY money.” Taking the lead from the start, Victor Axelrod laid down an infectious groove that weaved its way throughout the horn lines seamlessly. Toward the end of the song the beat dropped to a single thumping note pulsating from the bass of Nikhil and a cowbell beat courtesy of Amayo. As the main groove of the song took form, Aaron Johnson (trombone) stepped up a delivered a killer solo. With charged lyrics, hard hitting percussion, insane beats and stellar horns, the song is the perfect opening to either a show or an album and the audiences response was the final stamp of approval.
Following the order of the songs as they appear on the new album, the next song was “Rat Catcher.” The band took their time before really breaking into the song and things didn’t really get going until Stuart Bogie said so. Wailing on his saxophone during a solo that stretched over a minute, the momentum and tension Stuart created finally exploded into an all out jam that transitioned into a call and response section between the crowd and Amayo. The song tells the story of a foolish “ratcatcher” who is continuously outsmarted by a rat as he tries to catch it. As a result, he goes on building larger and larger cages, ultimately imprisoning himself. At this point the sun was beginning to set and an escape from the heat was welcomed by all but make no mistake, things were still hot and getting hotter up on stage. Never ones to shy away from the political theater, Amayo and the guys (with the Dap King horns once again) dedicated “Him Belly Got No Sweet” to the recently imprisoned all female Russian band Pussy Riot. During a break in the song following a spirited trumpet solo by Jordan McLean, Amayo delivered a well-received pro feminine power speech stating, “The happiness of women is essential to world peace”.
Up next was one of the fan favorites of the night “Rat Race,” a tribute to Bob Marley and perhaps a nod to the 2012 presidential race. The crowd really got on their feet for this one and shared equal enthusiasm as they belted out the chorus with Amayo. If the number of people dancing during “Rat Race” wasn’t a testament to everyone’s love for the song then the extremely energetic call and response surely was. Indicating that they may have been finished playing with the new material, the guys paid tribute to one of their idols once again and delivered Fela Kuti’s “Opposite People” in fine fashion. The trademark keyboard runs, rhythms and devilish horn solos were all there including the “talking afrobeat” breaks which typically found Fela lashing out at the political leaders of Nigeria and the army. This time around however it was Amayo conveying the essence of what real afrobeat was to him: a song that “grooves… that scatters my head ya know, that makes me want to rip my clothes off, get naked, and dance!” One of the main reasons for the band’s ability to keep the crowd moving is due to the hard work of the youngest and most relied upon member of Antibalas, drummer Miles Arntzen, and the fact that he didn’t let up or miss a beat all night. Sometimes the repetitive nature of afrobeat can be tough to handle and a lot of times, as drummers get bored they start to get careless. However young he may be, Miles is nothing like most drummers and he absolutely makes his job look easy, smiling all the way. At times he literally has the weight of the entire band on his shoulders, yet keeps it all together like a seasoned veteran such as Billy Martin with whom he has taken lessons. When all is said and done and you consider the journey that lead to his spot behind the kit in Antibalas, you have to question your thoughts about fate and destiny.
Digging a little deeper into their catalogue with “Battle of the Species” the band got the groove going hard. With a driving drum beat accented by the pulsating of various percussive instruments, the band played with determination and was definitely enjoying their time on stage as evident by the always entertaining dancing of Jordan McLean. A riveting solo by Martin on the bari sax segued perfectly into the funky, disjointed horn section that begins “Beaten Metal.” The guys with the brass in their hands were particularly animated during this late stretch of music, at times getting down and dancing in unison. Just as they opened the night with the title track off the new album, in similar fashion they closed the night out with the final track “Sare Kon Kon.” The tune has a thriving drum beat that is tailed by a meandering bass line and as always, there was no shortage of percussive accents. As the vocals come in they initially sound like random scatting, however as the groove develops, the “scatting” ultimately gives way to a call and response between the band members with the title of the song being repeated. If you couldn’t tell that Stuart was pumped up by his explosive solo, it was obvious when he literally picked up trumpeter Jordan McLean as if he was a wounded soldier, laid him out over his shoulders while ferociously spinning like a helicopter. When “play time” ended for Stuart, he immediately jumped right back into the mix with one last solo before the band revisited the main theme of the song and closed their set out.
With a beautiful afternoon giving way to a cool clear night, Antibalas stepped right up to the plate and immediately threw it down hard. Like any great artist, and as they always do, the guys achieved that perfect balance of giving the fans one hell of a dance party while leaving them craving more. Luckily, for the diehard fans and the newcomers alike, Antibalas has one hell of a busy schedule through the fall giving audiences world wide plenty of chances to shake their “nyash.”