Tinariwen – When The Legend Becomes Fact, Print The Legend – live at the Bluebird Theatre in Denver Colorado, 2015-08-12.

The legendary Tuareg collective brings their spectacular Saharan drone blues to the mountains of the Mile-High City.

Tinariwen is one of the world’s most fascinating bands, and one of the best live bands currently working. They do a hypnotic and sinuous style of sahara drone blues called “assouf” among the Tuareg nomads that is exhilarating, spiritual and sensual at the same time and their mastery of the style was in evidence in their recent show at the Bluebird Theatre in Denver, Colorado.

Tinariwen’s music is hard to describe because it penetrates your consciousness from the inside out. It’s like being in the middle of a cloud while a storm is being born. The polyrhythmic, serpentine, trancelike tunes play out in subtle ways, and the more you try to focus on it and grab the music the more it slips through your fingers like trying to hold the wind in your hands.

When you hear Tinariwen live for the first time, you start by saying – “I don’t get it. This is weird and atonal. I don’t think I like it. The song structures sound wrong. I’m becoming vaguely uncomfortable”. But then once you let your subconscious take over, your brain locks in and gets it, and suddenly it’s the greatest music you’ve ever heard in your life.

If there had not been a Tinariwen, it’s clear that the world would have had to create one anyway, because it’s obvious that the world needs Tinariwen. How much of the Tinariwen experience is created by the band, and how much is created by the audience, is hard to know. Similarly, how much of the Tinariwen legend is true doesn’t even matter.

Their backstory has become so legendary that it’s impossible to know where the facts end and the legend begins. But as aptly stated in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

So here’s the story as far as I’ve read: founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, son of a Tuareg rebel living in Mali, learned to play guitar by making his own Instrument out of a tin can, a stick and bicycle brake wire. (Not even Jack White can match that!)

After Alhabib’s father was executed, he grew up in Algerian and Libyan refugee camps and gradually gravitated to playing traditional music such Moroccan chaabi protest music with his fellow refugees. People began to call the group “Kel Tinariwen”, which translates from Tamashek as “The Desert Boys”.

In the early 1980s, Alhabib and his companions, along with many other Tuareg living illegally in Libya, were conscripted or otherwise joined the Libyan army. In the mid-80s they joined the Tuareg rebel movement in Libya and started distributing homemade cassettes of their music, which apparently were popular underground protest symbols.

Around 1990, the group left Libya and returned to Alhabib’s native Mali village. About the same time, the Tuareg people of Mali revolted against the government, and some of Tinariwen became rebel fighters. After the peace accord was reached in 1991, Tinariwen shifted their full-time focus to music.

Tinariwen can’t seem to evade drama and unrest though, and most recently in 2013 during another Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali Tinariwen had to escape Mali when the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine denounced their music as contrary to Islamic values. Most of the members of Tinariwen escaped to the southwestern desert of the United States but guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida was imprisoned for an undocumented period, although he’s now back with the band.

Mali’s loss has been America’s serendipity, as Tinariwen recorded their well-received 2014 album Emmaar in the US and has been regularly touring the US for the last three years. I’ve gotten a chance to see them live five times in that time across four states, and their live shows are transcendent experiences.

Over the years the lineup has shifted quite a bit and become multi-generational. They truly are a collective, and whoever is in the troop at any particular time is “Tinariwen”. When I first became aware of Tinariwen in the early 2000s, the focus was on Alhabib, whose calm and noble demeanor on stage belied a quiet storm inside. He was a stoic counterpart to the other elder members, guitarist/singers Alhassane Ag Touhami and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, who when they are not singing or playing guitar clap their hands, dance and weave around the stage waving benedictions to the crowd.

On the most recent two shows I’ve seen, Alhabib has not been part of the group, supposedly he’s returned to Mali, but the shows carry on with Touhami and Lamida leading the band. The focus has shifted to the younger generation of players, including a gifted young guitarist and lead singer with matinee idol looks named Yad Abderrahmane playing hypnotic loops and elegantly spare solos, a bass virtuoso named Eyadou Ag Leche with skills on a level like Flea or Bootsy Collins, a percussionist named Said Ag Ayad playing a traditional gourd-style tinde drum and a mysterious shrouded guitarist who always stands at the back, doesn’t appear to sing and keeps the music grounded and pulsing by playing the drone parts.

Tinariwen are visually arresting to watch. They all dress in a color riot of traditional long-sleeved robes and headscarves, although from show to show various members take off the headscarves. Supposedly they used to always play scarved to avoid identity because their music was outlawed, but it hardly matters; it does add to the mystery of the music though.

The size of the band varies from six to ten members that constantly switch positions, guitars and mike positions from song to song, and although I’ve seen as many as five people playing guitar on some songs (!), usually it’s “only” two or three guitarists with the remainder doing background vocals or handclaps. Up to four of the members sing lead vocals depending on the song, while the rest provide a unison background vocal chorus.

They don’t seem to speak English but do speak French and don’t talk much to the crowd during a performance, but that’s fine because talking to the crowd would break the hypnotic trance mood. Since I obviously don’t speak Tamashek I don’t claim to understand the lyrics except the ones translated on the album jackets that typically seem to be either songs about the desert, water, life, ancestors, missing loved ones and other universal themes. It’s a tribute to their music that you don’t have to understand the words in order to think you have a deep understanding of the songs (even if that understanding is probably different to each person who listens to them).

The crowd mix at a Tinariwen show is nearly as interesting as the band. Tinariwen crowds are a wildly diverse mixture of ethnicity, age and style from world-beat music fans to alternative hipsters to aging blues guitarheads to (especially in Colorado) jam-band crunchies and pothea…err…recreational drug enthusiasts. Seeing all of these groups intermixing and dancing together without irony or self-awareness can’t help but bring a smile to your face.

I didn’t even attempt to keep a setlist from the Denver show, but below I’ve posted a couple of phone-videos I shot, including my favorite Tinariwen song “Toumast Tincha” along with their biggest “hit” in the states (“Tenere Taqqim Tossam” – “Jealous Desert”). The latter is a collaboration featuring Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone from TV On The Radio that is partially in English.

Tenere Taqqim Tossam is an amazing song, in that it starts in Tuareg and then shifts to English so subtly that the first time you hear it you think to yourself – “Damn, this music is inside my head so much that I’m starting to understand Tuareg!” Then you realize – oh, Adebimple/Malone are singing in English. Never mind.

The world is a big place filled with people you don’t know, songs you haven’t sung and stories that you haven’t heard. Tinariwen exists in this world, and the world is better because of it. You should not consider your life complete until you’ve seen them play.

Toumast Tincha, live in Denver, CO, USA at the Bluebird Theatre

Tenere Taqqim Tossam

Gig review: Los Lobos – Annapolis, MD – 2015-02-27

Forty years on, Los Lobos have not only survived, they still howl.

There is something noble about seeing a professional working band in the October of their careers, especially a band as great as Los Lobos.   Their brilliant 1984 major label debut asked the question “How Will The Wolf Survive” and the answer 31 years later is “quite nicely, thank you”.

Los Lobos have constructed a career out of constant touring and remain consummate musicians, able to turn on a dime from roots-Americana to roadhouse blues to jazz to Norteno to jamband riff-rock. To me Los Lobos are the consummate American band, and possibly one of the most underrated American bands of all time. I’ve never seen a band proficient in so many different styles and moods.

I have seen them live on the order of twenty times in their career going back to the mid-80s when they were part of the Los Angeles roots and punk scene, opening for bands as diverse as the Blasters, X and Black Flag. I can honestly say I’ve never seen two Los Lobos shows that were alike.   I have seen them play their 1987 fluke #1 US hit “La Bamba” three times in a show in three different styles, some shows where they don’t play it all; some shows where they stuck to Norteno music, some where they played nothing but blues, some where they played mostly covers including Grateful Dead songs.

Formed in 1973 but not coming into national recognition until 1983’s “…And A Time To Dance”, Los Lobos has kept the same set of four musicians for that entire time: David Hidalgo on guitar and accordion, the sunglasses-clad Cesar Rosas on guitar, Louie Perez on guitar, Conrad Lozano on bass, all of whom met in high school in East Los Angeles. Saxophone, flute and keyboards virtuoso Steve Berlin jumped over from the Blasters to Los Lobos 1984 to complete the core band that has now held constant for three decades.

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Over the years, Los Lobos have continued to be critics favorites and a sparkling live act and long after the bright “La Bamba” lights have faded, Los Lobos have continued to make album after album of subtle, powerful, nuanced rock influenced by their East LA background to a core group of devoted fans.

But it’s really their live shows where Los Lobos has made their career. They play without a setlist (or a net, for that matter). It appears that they tend to know what the first two or three songs of a set are going to be and then they feed off the crowd and depending on how the crowd responds they move off in that direction. Sometimes their shows are merely very good, sometimes they are brilliant with moments of musical transcendence, especially when Hidalgo is feeling inspired.

Hidalgo and Rosas trade off vocals from song to song, with Rosas doing more of the Norteno and gruffer blues vocals and Hidalgo’s heartbreaking tenor voice carrying off the more poignant ballads and mid-tempo numbers. Hidalgo is an amazing soloist on guitar and accordion and as a singer he is a real revelation, a shy mountain of a man with a gorgeous voice capable of pain and joy, sometimes simultaneously.

When you watch a Los Lobos show, you are taken with how clearly each musician is listening to the other musicians and adjusting their playing in and out of the melody around each other as if they are engaging in an intertwined musical dance.

The other thing you notice is that they’re still pushing themselves musically to find both new colors and moods from the older songs. Most bands forty years into their careers are just going through the motions, playing the hits like a jukebox for the crowd. Los Lobos shows, though, are a celebration of the power of music to continually reinvent itself as the musicians weave and out of each musically in new arrangements pushing each other to find something new out of the old songs.

They still play with a power and a passion belying their years which was testified to by the two sets they played to appreciative crowds in Annapolis, Maryland at the Ramshead on Feb 27. I saw the late set (musicial tip: always hit the late set for any band playing two sets) and once again they did not disappoint.

They played a roughly one hour forty-five minute set that covered their entire career and jumped in and out of every style and genre they play, with maybe a slight emphasis on the jazzy side of the blues. The highlight to me was a showstopping version of the Billy Myles blues standard “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” made popular by Freddie King in the early 1960s, with a solo by Hidalgo that figuratively nearly caught his guitar on fire.

Other highlights were “I Can’t Understand”, “Maricela”, a really nice ten-minute version of the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha”, and every song where Hidalgo played accordion. He has to be the best accordionist in the blues/roots scene.

Los Lobos play music not because they’re trying to be cool or trendsetters. They’re not trying to have another big hit. Los Lobos play music because they’re true musicians, and playing music is what musicians do.

Catch Los Lobos when they come to your town. They are true American originals.

Below is a clip from the show with Rosas doing lead on a cover of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” then “I Can’t Understand” followed by Hidalgo taking the lead on “Down On The Riverbed”. 

Gig review: Joanne Shaw Taylor – “The Dirty Truth” – Annapolis, MD – 2015-02-11

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English guitar phenom Joanne Shaw Taylor takes Annapolis by storm in support of her new album “The Dirty Truth”

It wasn’t all that long ago that the blues was a prominent part of the music scene, with the stars of the blues scene being household names in the general public. Young rock musicians, who learned to play by spinning the albums from the blues masters and trying to copy what they heard, revered blues guitarists and treated the albums as sacred artifacts.

As long as people experience love and loss, and the eternal struggle between the sacred and the profane, the blues will never die. In 2015, however, the blues scene has fragmented into any number of niches, each with a small but dedicated set of followers, and the stars of the genres seem to be known mostly only within the larger blues community. Blues 2015 seems to be defined by rigid rules and styles, at times seeming almost a formalistic exercise in style where both the artists and the audience know exactly what’s expected of them.

But a genre as hoary as the blues can still surprise. One of the surprises to me over the last decade is how vital the European blues scene has become. There are summertime folk/blues festivals throughout Europe, and the fan base seems to be as fervent there, especially with young people, as anything in the US. On a business trip a few years back to Moscow, Russia, I serendipitously caught a local blues festival and was really surprised by how much the young people were into it as if it were a new thing being freshly invented.

An even bigger surprise to me is how many of the young European blues guitarists are female. Two of the most well-known of this new breed are Serbian whiz Ana Popovic and England’s Joanne Shaw Taylor, the latter of whom played a terrific set on Wed 2015/02/11 at the Ramshead in Annapolis, MD in support of her excellent new album “The Dirty Truth”.

I’ve followed Ms. Taylor’s career since her 2009 debut with “White Sugar” but last week’s show was the first I saw in person. She really is as good as advertised, and I would strongly recommend seeing her if you’re interested in what 2015 blues and boogie-rock sounds like.

Taylor eschews the typical pitfall of young blues phenoms of always trying to play as fast and loud as she can. Instead, she employs a style that is supple, melodic, and lyrical, while retaining all of the power.   Although there were occasional times where she just threw down a monster solo on her Les Paul, far more often she let the melody and music take her at their own pace, with her soloing and riffing style in service of the music, rather than vice versa.

Backed by an able rhythm section from Detroit, she ran through selections from her entire career from “White Sugar”, “Diamonds In The Dirt” and “Always Almost Never” although she did focus on songs from the new album “The Dirty Truth”.

In addition to her sparkling guitar playing, Taylor is an engaging vocalist, with a whiskey-soaked voice belying her years and an expressive phrasing that has obviously been honed by years on the road.

Highlights to me were “Diamonds In The Dirt” as well as “Mud Honey” and “Tried, Tested and True” from “The Dirty Truth”.

If Taylor is an example of the hands into which the blues have been entrusted in 2015, then the statement that the blues will never die may just turn out to be true. If those hands happen to be young, white, female and English all the better.

If you ever get the chance to see Taylor in concert, by all means do so. She’s the real deal.

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Photo courtesy of Natasha Cornblatt