Better than…outrunning the delirious coyotes in my neighborhood.
I was asked more than once leading up to last night's Antibalas show, “Why would you listen to a band that sounds so much like Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti when they could just listen to one of his recordings?” As loud as you may crank the Fela at home, it will sound exactly the same every time you listen to it. New York's Antibalas, up to 14 members strong, put on a two hour show at the Echoplex last night heavily indebted to the ghost of Fela, but with a free-wheeling unpredictability. Antibalas isn't a cover band. Consider them meticulous carriers of an Afrobeat message that has never been more popular in America than it is now.
The evening started with local heroes Very Be Careful. The five-piece band is a bit of a retro act themselves, dealing in a traditional Columbian cumbia sounds but with a personalized air of menace. “I've been kicked out of seven of the last ten places we played,” announced accordionist Ricardo Guzman. “I'm hoping for eight.” Between their close, biting harmonies and intimate acoustic set-up (upright bass, vocals, percussion and accordion) the band taunted the demure crowd by playing another five songs after each song. It would be great to see them in a setting where the audience gave as much as they got, but this wasn't the night.
Antibalas came out and stretched across the entire stage, 14 musicians fighting for enough space to saunter left and right, forward and back. The sheer force of this band is enough to warrant a listen. Twenty-three dollars for a ticket seemed a little steep, and it seemed enough to keep the crowd fairly sparse, filling in near the front of the stage but leaving enough room for a roller rink at the back.
The band opened with a strong, popping instrumental before lead vocalist and conguero Duke Amayo took over, offering the audience his L.A. love. Amayo was a great frontman for this blazing orchestra, and he seemed to relish every minute in front of them.
The group worked throughout their 14 year catalog with particular attention to their self-titled album released last week, providing gnarly horn solos from the right side of the stage. Trombonist Aaron Johnson and tenor saxophonist Stuart Bogie physically communicated the direction of their solos with the full extent of their shoulders and knees, giving 100% from their lungs. This must be one of the few touring bands where the horn section is hoarse from all the shouting they do throughout the set. The horn-men never stopped wailing or yelling or dancing or bouncing.
On the other side of the stage, the rhythm guys kept a disturbingly even balance. Keyboardist Victor Axelrod provided numerous snake charmer turns on his keyboards while guitarists Luke O'Malley and Marcos Garcia stayed cool as cucumbers with their intricately woven parts.
The audience were a steaming mass of bodies bouncing along to the horn section and basking in every funky breakbeat that came their way. The band is a relentless party machine and Fela hasn't been on this planet for over 15 years. Someone has to keep the party going and Antibalas is up to the task. They have a faithful devotion to their predecessors, flawless stage presence, and a willingness to swig beer throughout the set – what more could you ask?
Personal Bias: Considering how much jazz I write about here, how could I oppose the concept of a retro band?
The Crowd: Probably the most diverse crowd I've seen in L.A. in awhile. Anyone with the ability to dance had a pretty good chance of getting laid.
Random Notebook Dump: That “Colonel Sanders in a g-string” painting hanging by the soundboard will haunt my dreams.
Dilo Como Yo