wed 18/09/2019

Tinariwen, HMV Forum | reviews, news & interviews

Tinariwen, HMV Forum

Tinariwen, HMV Forum

The Tuareg desert blues men have still got it, and probably will always have it

Okay, so they're not really Africa's answer to Status Quo

Back in June of this year, the international successful Malian blues band gave what felt at the time like a curiously muted performance at the World Cup Kick-off Celebration Concert in Johannesburg. But perhaps it was the effect of having their laidback hypnotic grooves juxtaposed to the in-your-face emoting and hip-gyrating of the likes of Shakira and Alicia Keys that seemed to somewhat mystify the stadium audience. Because this is a band that seem to have little interest in doing any more than just playing their music, and humbly hoping that people will climb aboard without them having to do the whole show biz hard-sell thing.

This philosophy became more apparent than ever last night at the Forum when they appeared on stage bathed in an icy blue light and played a slow-burning, slightly shambolic opening number, which only made me admire them all the more for not pandering to expectations, and for just being as laidback as only men of the timeless, time-oblivious Saharan desert can be. Even their frontman, lead guitarist and vocalist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, has little interest in the usual responsibilities a front person has, of creating that vital electric current that passes backwards and forwards between the audience and the band. He just stood stock still, his carved-from-mahogany face a mask of neutrality, refusing to indulge in the traditional rock histrionics, his only physical movement being a barely perceptible swinging from left to right of the neck of his Stratocaster.

So what is it then that Tinariwen’s audience love about them? For this was largely a crowd of the already converted, thrilled to be seeing their heroes play live again. Is it the incidental bass drone they collectively make, which subtly contributes to the hypnotic pull of every song? Or is it the wiry curlicues of electric guitar that evoke the American blues but also spiral off into other far more exotic realms? Or maybe it’s the fact that, just like Status Quo or the Ramones, their audience knows exactly what they are going to get, and they just can’t wait to get it again?

Because let's not beat about the desert bush; all of Tinariwen’s songs are essentially the same. They circle, hover and entwine themselves around just one or two chords; they lope along at camel speed (although sometimes a bit faster, and sometimes a bit slower), and when you’re beginning to think they can’t get any more transportive, Ibrahim unfurls yet another hard yet brittle guitar solo, thrillingly reminiscent of Television-era Tom Verlaine.

But however much all of these things are part of the band’s undeniable pulling power, I actually think it’s got as much to do with the simple fact that they don’t have some brutish drummer, habitually locked into the tyranny of the click track, imposing the thud and thwack of a bass drum and a snare drum on to their exquisitely organic sound. Instead, the band members with unoccupied hands raise those hands above their heads and clap. And the audience gets an unprecedented opportunity to join them in laying down the main rhythmic element, and thus help to drive the songs and the band forward.

And so it goes on for the next hour or so. And then, typical of their cavalier disregard for Western pop music conventions, Tinariwen deliver a couple of encores which seem almost as long as their original set. No new heights are reached, no surprise cover versions are covered - we just get more of the sublime same: ground-hugging grooves to luxuriate in, riffs and off-shoots of riffs to get lost in, and a vague feeling of disappointment when each song ends rather too abruptly. In summation, Tinariwen have still got it - and I see no reason why they won’t always have it. As in this instance, it is something timeless and completely outside the vagaries of youth culture or fashion.

Ground-hugging grooves to luxuriate in, riffs and off-shoots of riffs to get lost in

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