Last night I was at the Calvin College Fine Arts Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for what turned out to be one of the more memorable shows I’ve ever attended. I was there for Tinariwen (on whom more below). I had never heard of the opener, Kishi Bashi, not even via the use of his music (as I now learn) in a familiar Windows 8 commercial, and even if I had made the connection I would not have expected his music to be my thing. Support bands you’ve never heard of are often a bit of a lottery, and as two guys with a violin and a banjo took the stage I was ready for anything, but little expected what followed. Working with an amplified violin, various looping devices, and the assistance for half the set of Mike Savino of Tall Tall Trees on banjo and bass, Kishi Bashi (real name K. Ishibashi) strung together a series of loop-based pieces that defied genre categorization. He is blessed with formidable skills on the violin, a pure and powerful voice, and apparently boundless energy and musical imagination. Picture Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós singing bluegrass-classical-folk-pop-experimental pieces structured like miniature progressive rock epics interspersed with beatboxing and driven by double-speed loops created live and you’ll be half way there. Based on a modest amount of post-show listening I’d have to say the live performance is considerably more dynamic, unpredictable, and downright exciting than the prettier, more polished, but also more subdued studio recordings. There was a constant sense of not knowing what would happen next, but knowing that it would be fascinating, as loops were built and dropped and songs radically changed direction and even genre mid-stream. This video from another performance at NPR gives a good sense of how the show unfolded:
I believe this was the first time I’ve seen the opening act at this venue receive a rapturous standing ovation at the end of their set.
After a brief intermission, Tinariwen took the stage, and I confess I was worried for a while. Take a concert hall mostly filled with American students who have just heard a hip, dynamic, emotive, tech-savvy, show-stealing performance from an upcoming artist whose music is being used to package the future of Windows, throw in the distinct possibility that many of them do not know Tinariwen and came mostly because the flyers for the show said that U2 and Radiohead recommended the band, and then have half a dozen Tuareg dressed for the Sahara walk on stage and stand motionless singing dawdling, alien music in a foreign language – could that be a recipe for success? Some folk left after the first song, a couple more after the second. Audience response was politely appreciative, but at first visibly more subdued than the wild enthusiasm before the intermission. Little did we know that what we had just heard was just the first glow of a slow-burning fuse.
Tinariwen’s remarkable story – the building of a home-made guitar from a tin can and bicycle wire, the Libyan military training, the unlikely rise to international fame – is easily accessible elsewhere and recommended reading. Knowing and enjoying a couple of their albums did not prepare me for the power of their live performance. With what in hindsight was a masterful sequencing of songs, they imperceptibly built tempo, tension, and energy, and their sinuous, sly rhythms slowly hooked our minds and bodies until they had drawn us over into their world. The percussionist (whom I could have watched for hours) sat with a single drum and conjured complex, seductive beats that seemed to imply a much larger rhythm section. Guitar motifs curled and swayed, never straying far from the weaving pattern but driving the songs insistently onward. By the time, after a few songs, a member of the band danced to the front of the stage, beckoning with body language towards what he did not have the English to describe in words, the crowd was ready; a few stood and swayed, then a few more, and after the piece that followed the entire audience in the all-seating venue was on its feet and in motion for the remainder of the show. The video below gives a sense of the music, but cannot capture the slow, captivating build of energy that occurred as the show progressed:
By the end we were roaring for an encore, and received a courageous one. Moments after one of their most energetic jams, with the audience yelling and whistling for more, a single musician returned to the stage and held everyone, still on their feet, breathless with a slow, pensive, tense solo guitar piece that defied anyone to move a muscle and interrupt its moody progress. The rest of the band returned for a final upbeat flourish, they made a last brief attempt to communicate in French, and we left for home after a remarkable display of the power of music and a taste of the beautiful alchemy of a successful cross-cultural encounter. If you get the chance to see either of these acts live, don’t hesitate.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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