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Review: Watcha Clan, Live in San Francisco (@Afropop.org)

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It took a little while to post (and it will move to Afropop.org’s front page later this week) but here is my review of Watcha Clan at the finale of the 2010 Jewish Music Festival in San Francisco. And be sure to check out the links to Charming Hostess, the opening band that was truly astounding.

Watcha Clan, Live in San Francisco

Jeffrey Callen

Never judge a band by a single performance. The first time I saw the Marseilles-based Watcha Clan was in July 2009 at a small club in San Francisco and the performance fell flat. The songs lacked the moments of unpredictability that worked so well onDiaspora Hi-Fi, the arrangements felt hackneyed and stale. I left feeling Watcha Clan was just another electronic band that created interesting studio work but was out of its element live (check out my interview with Lado Clem of Watcha Clan on Afropop.org in 2009). I’m here to report that this is one of those times when I’m happy to be wrong. I saw Watcha Clan again on Sunday July 18, 2010 in a very different setting and they killed.

Watcha Clan, headlining the finale of the 25th edition of the Jewish Music Festival in San Francisco, turned in an exciting musical performance where, surprisingly, everything clicked. The staid, buttoned-down performance space of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is not an ideal setting for a “world & bass” band. YBCA books some interesting and innovative musical acts (just take a look at a fascinating installation by Oakland’s musical iconoclasts Charming Hostess) but it feels like what it is: a room tacked onto a museum. The lines of folding chairs set up in the room (for the rest…)

Fat Freddy’s Drop: Live in San Francisco (@Afropop.org)

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Here’s my review of the best live show I’ve seen this year — published on Afropop.org today.

Fat Freddy’s Drop: Live in San Francisco

Fat Freddy’s Drop tore up the Independent in San Francisco on Friday, June 25. Soul drenched vocals and reggae riddims mixed with electronic effects, club beats and a killer horn section to create a fresh sound that is contemporary but deeply rooted in a diverse collection of black music styles that came of age in the 1970s. Funk, soul, reggae, ska, dub—sometimes straightforward, sometimes deconstructed—were not unexpected from an outfit that started out as a jam band. What was unexpected was that it all worked!

I was drawn to Fat Freddy’s Drop’s show by the song “Boondigga” (from their last album Dr. Boondigga and the Big BW), which had been firmly entrenched on my personal playlist for a month before the show. The song came early in the eighty-minute set so if things had bogged down or fell flat, I wouldn’t have second thoughts about cutting out and looking for a plan B but I didn’t leave until the show ended. Now back to the song that drew me to the show because I think there’s something in there that explains the appeal and brilliance of Fat Freddy’s Drop. “Boondigga” opens on a smooth soul groove, anchored by the sweet Philadelphia sounds laid down by the horn section and driven by a very ‘70s electronic drum track. Joe Dukie’s smooth vocals ride on top of the slowly building arrangement that does not gain its full power until after the break, three minutes in. A subtle shift in the horn chart brings in the more harmonically extended controlled dissonance that Tower of Power brought out of Oakland signaling the beginning of a major deconstruction of Boondigga’s smooth soul sound. The horns exit and a soulfully deviant aural soundscape is created from distorted guitar, swelling keys and electronics. Live the horn section left the stage at the start of the deconstruction, which was given twice as long to develop as on the album – a full four minutes. And that was true of the entire show: (for the rest…)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 26, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Tinariwen in San Francisco (@Afropop.org)

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Desert rockers Tinariwen of Mali have been on tour in the US this winter.  Jeffrey Callen caught the show—on an off night, it seems—in San Francisco, February 22, 2010.  Here’s his review.  The photos by Banning Eyre are from Tinariwen’s performance at New York’s Highline Ballroom about a week earlier.

It’s easy to review a great performance. The feeling of elation from being taken out of the daily flow of life stimulates the creative centers of the brain and the words flow. Reviewing a bad performance also comes fairly easily. As an exercise in figuring out why the event didn’t work—the music didn’t gel, the crowd didn’t respond—it offers its own kind of satisfaction. But when a show almost works, when nothing is terribly wrong, there is little to say. It just fell flat. The emotional and intellectual drivers to write fail to appear:  elation is missing, no intellectual problem to unravel. The performance just fell flat. And that’s what happened when one of the great bands working today, Tinariwen, played the Palace of Fine Arts on Sunday, February 22nd. (for more go to Tinariwen in San Francisco).

Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 8, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Deciphering Watcha Clan: Interview with Jeffrey Callen

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As the year wound down, I found myself thinking a lot about my favorite albums of 2009. They’re not falling into an easy categorization but there is a thread that ties them together. They all are based on crossings of musical boundaries. My runaway favorite album of 2009 is Omar Sosa’s Across the Great Divide, a brilliant jazz album that does the usually impossible: tells an engaging story, melds music and spoken voice, and makes a profound musical statement without losing the listener. A wonderful album that ignores boundaries of musical genre as it traverses the Black Atlantic, incorporating a diverse range of musical influences (including the incredible “Northern Roots” singer Tim Eriksen), to capture the musical and spiritual profundity of the Middle Passage. The other album that keeps finding its way to my digital turntable is the debut release of Warsaw Village Band. Brilliantly executed Polish music that crosses musical borders—check out the wonderfully funky “Skip Funk” and “Polska Fran Polska,” an inspired meeting of Swedish and Polish dance musics—but always remains rooted in Warsaw. It has a sense of travel, meeting, and exchange but it’s always rooted in a sense of place, a sense of home. That sense of musical travel, meeting and interchange is what is drawing me to cds this year. Last year’s Snakeskin Violin by Markus James was another effort that worked for me but there are all the misses, mostly World Music endeavors that perpetuate the worst of the North–South colonial heritage under the auspices of intercultural understanding. It’s the forefronting of the “Western” artist or musical reference and a certain rhetorical smugness that stands out. But all of this is just preamble to an album I don’t know what to do with. I should hate it. It’s rootless, “multi-cultural” music produced by “musical nomads.” On the surface, it’s all too precious but it’s got something and, sometimes, it’s got a lot.  (to read more click: Deciphering Watcha Clan: Interview with Jeffrey Callen).

Watcha Clan

Written by Jeffrey Callen

December 22, 2009 at 5:16 pm

Review of King Sunny Ade at the Independent in San Francisco (Afropop.org)

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King Sunny Ade in San Francisco — review of King Sunny Ade in San Francisco in June 2009 and the re-release of Seven Degrees North.


Written by Jeffrey Callen

December 13, 2009 at 6:04 pm

Review of Melvin Gibb’s Ancients Speak (Afropop.org)

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Ancients Speak (published in Afropop.org in March 2009) — review of Ancients Speak, a journey by Melvin Gibbs’ Elevated Entity through the past, present and possible future of the “Black Atlantic continuum.”

Written by Jeffrey Callen

December 12, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Review of Melvin Gibb's Ancients Speak (Afropop.org)

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Ancients Speak (published in Afropop.org in March 2009) — review of Ancients Speak, a journey by Melvin Gibbs’ Elevated Entity through the past, present and possible future of the “Black Atlantic continuum.”

Written by Jeffrey Callen

December 12, 2009 at 4:15 pm

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