Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Concert Review; Antibalas; Friday, June 29, 2007, Opera House, Toronto.

Bands that rise slowly and steadily are few and far between these days. It seems more efficient to hype somebody into large venues, and hope to get at least one or two high-earning tours out of them before a new flavour hits the scene. Antibalas went from playing to a handful of us at their Lee’s Palace debut, to packing the Horseshoe, and this time they played to a rather full Opera House. They have worked hard on the road to present the tight Afrobeat Orchestra which has earned a dedicated following. Their c.d.’s might not be monster sellers, but their presence in your town is as safe a bet as any for a stellar live performance.

Tonight, Martin Perna led the band through one longer set rather than the two shorter sets they used to spring on unsuspecting audiences. Despite cutting their playing time, their performances are so good that nobody leaves an Antibalas show frustrated at the end of the night.

As the band’s catalogue has grown, they have dropped the Fela covers in favour of their own songs. These have grown beyond Afrobeat to include the jazzier sounds on their current “Security” c.d. and the Latin jams they now bust into, along with those spacey flourishes from organist Victor Axelrod.

They played songs like “Filibuster XXX” from the new disc, and older Afrobeat jams from the band’s early days after their brief incarnation as The Daktaris. Singer Amayo still sings almost all the songs, filling in with the percussionists during the instrumental passages. Everyone keeps busy on Antibalas’ stage, which is no small feat when dealing with thirteen odd performers, including a full horn section. This time out, band leader Martin Perna stepped further away from the spotlight while some of the other members cut loose and take turns fronting the band. Jordan McLean vamped and played trumpet and flugelhorn for an extend jam, while Amayo was supporting the percussion section.

The audience seems to recognize more of the band’s self-penned tracks, particularly songs with a catchy chorus, such as “Government Magic” from a 2005 release of the same title. The final encore tonight, the irresistible “Che Che Cole” also comes from this release, but the vocals for the live version come from guitarist Marcos J. Garcia.

The Fela influence can never leave a band dedicated to the genre he pioneered, but Antibalas have diversified their sound, especially in the last few years, to go beyond that of Afrobeat revivalists. Stateside, they might be passing that torch to fellow Americans such as the Chicago Afrobeat Project and Ann Arbor’s Nomo. Antibalas consistently put out intense, musical energy through their concerts, and tonight was no exception. The added bonus is the band, while moving in new directions, is not abandoning their cherished Afrobeat sound, but adding to it. If the new “Security” c.d. sounds a little subdued, fear not; Antibalas’ concerts are the same high-energy events they always were.


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