Congotronics vs Rockers, Barbican | New music reviews, news & interviews
Congotronics vs Rockers, Barbican
A 19-piece multicultural band inject new life into the Congotronics brand
Several of my favourite tracks of 2010 were on Tradi-Mods vs Rockers. This was a musically audacious project in which a bunch of Western pop and rock musicians dared to unpick the intricate fabric of some Congolese bands who were already making some definitively funky music of their own. The question that arose while I was reacquainting myself with this double CD yesterday, was how were these mostly cut'n'paste studio confections - made in the absence of the musicians that inspired them - going to be recreated live with the involvement of those very same musicians?
I expected it would be a pretty hit-or-miss affair. Perhaps there would be some good, organically cohesive music. But there would also be one of two skinny blokes hunched over laptops while the Congolese musicians put on a proper show at their side. But what I wasn’t expecting was that the whole troupe of 19 Congotronics musicians would all be taking to the stage at the same time. In fact, the album consisted of 26 tracks all created by different individuals or groups. I was aware that only a small fraction of these musicians were involved in the concert tour. But I still expect Deerhoof, Juana Molina, Wildbirds & Peacedrums and Skeletons to each take their turn in the spotlight, while various members of the two Congolese bands, Konono No1 and Kasai Allstars, filled out the sound, "kept it real" and added some Afro kudos.
And apparently this was more or less how things were during the early dates. But gradually it became apparent to all the musicians involved that they were having more fun during the all-singing, all-dancing mass jam session at the end than they were doing the rest of the concert. But this couldn’t possibly work, could it? Six guitarists, three drummers, a marimba player, percussionists, singers, a keyboardist - and several people I apologise for not mentioning - spreading themselves out across the stage like a ramshackle multi-ethnic invading army.
However, astonishingly, the great river of sound that began to pour forth didn’t rapidly turn into a thick stagnant soup. Instead, what issued from these 19 musicians was on the whole bright, fresh, and consistently involving. The reason it all worked seemed to be mainly down to the fact that this band – for we must now call them a band because they’ve earned it – had obviously been writing a whole bunch of new material while on the road. And this was of course far more in the spirit of the original art-house-meets-tradition music project.
Argentinian experimental singer-songwriter Juana Molina (pictured right) provided the focus for much of the evening. Part Summer of Love hippy and part tragic Pre-Raphaelite muse, she stood centre stage in her pretty frock, occasionally bashed an adjacent cymbal, while singing one of her eerily haunting Molina melodies over the rolling mesh of buzzes, clunks and clangs. Her track was one of my favourites on the album, so I was more than happy to hear a few more in the same vein.
The next surprise was the fact that this essential new band had so quickly acquired an almost telepathic rapport. But somehow they didn’t make the din you might expect from such an oversized, ludicrously drum and guitar-heavy unit. Sometimes those drummers just sat back on the groove. Then those signature distorted thumb pianos came to the fore, effectively reminding the audience of the reason both they and this band were in the Barbican in the first place. And then moments later those drummers would be thrashing out a rhythm as if their lives depended on it, pulling the audience to their feet so they could better bathe in the thunder.
But where were all my favourite Tradi-Mods vs Rockers tunes? Well, pretty much absent. Instead we were dished up some nifty new alt-pop songs that Vampire Weekend would kill for, fired at us with all the joyous childlike fervour of Arcade Fire. So this wasn’t what was expected but it was just as satisfying. I really do hope an album is in the pipeline based around the highly original material played by this great band-in-the-making last night. My only criticism was that things got hellishly loud at times, particularly when one of the guitarists couldn’t resist doing a bit of sub-Velvets psuedo-anarchic soloing. I just thought, please, give us a break; you’re not in some wimpy indie band now - this audience is here to get away from all that tired nonsense. Or maybe that was just me.
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