Sunday, July 08, 2007

Afro-Punk Festival + URB ALT: 7 July 2007

There were apparently about four major music events happening this Saturday in the New York area. The Afro-Punk Festival, The Urb Alt Festival, Live Earth, and the fourth no one seemed able to remember. I opted to go to part the Afro-Punk Festival at the Brooklyn Museum and part of the penultimate night of the four-date Urb Alt Festival at Shrine World Music Venue in Harlem. I had wanted to see Stephanie McKay and The Smyrk at Afro-Punk. Unfortunately, I missed The Smyrk after seeing about three different times for the start of the fest which was held outdoors in the Museum's large parking lot during its Target [store-sponsored] First Saturdays. The Smyrk and Stephanie McKay, who I thought were the big draws, were on first. It was great weather, and a great crowd, with whole families turning out, and tons of boho, freakazoid, punk-as-they-wanna-be black and brown folks, and some white freaks to boot. The organizers of the film and music fest, are James Spooner (director of the documentary Afro-Punk, and an autobiographical feature, White Lies, Black Sheep; and Matthew Morgan, the latter who is the main point person for the fest now that Spooner has relocated to Los Angeles (why, oh why? I can't imagine--maybe grand love). (dancing kids & families at the Afro-Punk Festival)

(left, McKay belting one out for the little colored girls including the enraptured one who climbed on the gate for a better view; her daddy's on the left taking a photo) When I got there I thought things had yet to start. There were a number of folks there, the stage was set up and a DJ was spinning, the energy was positive although low-key and disparate. As it turned out this was to be the deal for the part of the fest I was at. Long lag-times between acts equaled a lukewarm-->cold audience for each subsequent artist. That was a bummer for Stephanie McKay who had already lost half her band for the gig, seems somebody was able to pay them more, so they bailed. She was left scrambling to get a couple of musicians to fill in and then had to practice all day to get them up to speed. Even though Smyrk had apparently played a great set, the lag time left McKay with an audience in need of re-heating. She took to that job like a pro: after wailing on her knees like a downhome Pentacostal gospel diva didn't get folks up, McKay grabbed a tambourine, jumped into the crowd, expertly picked out the self-conscious folks who were on the verge of letting go but just needed a little affirmation, and got them to dance with her. (above right, McKay works the stage with her drummer)To be clear the crowd was missing the opportunity to share the love with a thoughtful singer-songwriter who has serious wordsmith and musical skills; girlfriend used to be the lead guitarist for Kelis' band, and has gotten serious acclaim for her own work. And she can command a stage, I was recognizing this as were many of the rest of us who scored a place up front. We were giving her love, including her homegirl Hanifah Walidah (who will finally be performing again on the East Coast this Fall), and a few Bronx homeboys who had brought their young daughters who were grooving on seeing a grown-ass colored girl artist owning the stage. (right, McKay's backup vocalist, and stand-in guitarist feel the music) I love McKay's social-conscious groove "Tell It Like It Is" which I had heard on her MySpace page. But it was great to hear her slower work and seeing her play acoustic guitar. (left, McKay in an instrumental moment)

I got her 2006 eponymous EP (not to be confused with her surname titled first CD, McKay, 2003) which has reconfigured old-school soul elements which she's made her own ("Tell It Like It Is"), old-school r&b tinged reggae ("Take Me Over"), arrhythmic black musical polyglot ("Rising Tide"), and the bust-it-down, bass-heavy groove of M.O.N.E.Y., plus a club re-mix of "Tell It Like It Is," á la the acid jazz of D-Influence/Brand New Heavies/Incognito. Afterwards McKay talked to fans for an hour, signing CDs, and having to replenish the available CDs. Of course I got mine signed!

So I stayed around to hear the first two songs by Dragons of Zynth (pictured right). Good band, great musicians, energetic stage presence,just too much young gun rock star posing for me; plus a little voice told me that I better skeedaddle if I wanted to catch Faith at the Urb Alt Festival. Sadly that meant missing The Exit.

(pictured above Afro-Punk founder James Spooner, and music critics Kandia Crazy Horse and Tavia Nyong'o)

But the little voice was right; I made it uptown to 133rd Street & Adam Clayton Powell in time to hear Faith do 3.5 songs. It would have been 2.5, but we all clapped and hooted when singer and bassist Felice Rosser aka Faith thanked the crowd who had given her much love, the Urb Alt Festival, and gave props to all of the previous acts. (pictured left press photo of Faith's current line-up) Then the emcee got onstage to keep the energy going and announce the next act and we yelled, "One more! One more!" Clearly we weren't ready to let Faith go, so we got our wish. Let it be said Faith is: One.Tight.Band. Rosser's bass playing finds a rhythm and works it, hums it, slings it, strokes it, swirls it, slaps it, rubs it down, as the saying goes, and she could play the same rhythm over and over for 30 minutes or more and it wouldn't get tired. You know those actors you'd pay to see read the phone book? Rosser is like that on the bass, she had that baby singing in a full warm voice, it was a tone the color of well-loved wood, warmed by the bare feet of little black girls playing "Miss Mary Mack." (pictured right, Rosser playing with Faith in '96)Rosser could give the bass tone the undulating thickness of molasses, or the lighter touch of honey, but it was always fluid, full, and rich, her rhythm sure and steady.Her vocals, ah, I'm not a big fan of comparisons, but here it's valid; Rosser's voice has been compared to Nina Simone, and I hear some Joan Armatrading in there as well. Guitarist Naotaka "Nao" Hakamada, is a mofo on that instrument. I really enjoy seeing guitarists who can play, and by that I mean not the employ of dexterity, or power, or effects, each for its own sake, but those who have taken the time to really develop the collaboration between instrument and player. The potential result is a particular voice which can include dexterity, power, and use of effects, but isn't defined by those elements. And they clearly all enjoy playing with each other, seasoned players who know what they're doing. Latest addition, drummer Scott Hartley, did an understated thing where he found a place for snare and the judicious use of cymbals that backed up the rhythm and created particular rhythmic junctures without cutting into the same frequencies as either Rosser's vocals or Hakamada's guitar. (pictured left, an earlier incarnation of Faith with drummer Samuel "Toro" Cruz furthest left)Thankfully, Faith released their second full-length album this year, A Place Where Love Can Grow, which has garnered praise from major publications including The New York Times, and The Village Voice, and hopefully will get them more widespread play. Writer/musician Greg Tate has been raving about Faith for years in his Village Voice column; an article from almost ten years ago is what got me running Uptown to hear her! More on the album and the fascinating Rosser here.

Next up was the final act of the evening, Urb Alt founder Boston Fielder's multi-instrumental and multi-genre project, Muthawit Orchestra. (pictured left, Muthawit setting up; Fielder standing in the red shirt) Muthawit bears some resemblance to Tate's Burnt Sugar, The Arkestra Chamber, in its genre crossing experimental bent, except Fielder doesn't seem to be employing Lawrence "Butch" Morris' conduction method of real-time improvisational composition/performance --some of the string section (viola and two violins), electric bassist, and tap/effects guitarist were all working off sheet music. Fielder was the primary vocalist, and most of their songs had vocals, with background vocals provided by an unnamed female. But they do have a shifting line-up dating from 1989 whose members would require a Pillow Book worth of surface area to list. This evening the Orchestra was introduced by the emcee as though they had just formed, and perhaps they had in that incarnation. It must have been an odd experience for them as not everyone could fit on Shrine's small stage. The strings were off-stage in front of the drum kit, as was one of the guitarists, the cellist was barely visible in the shadows, and the sax player [V. Jeffrey Smith] was also offstage, in front of the men's room door sharing a mic with the back-up vocalist. There was some inspired, highly skilled music happening--a mixture, of jazz, funk, classical, performance poetry/storytelling, rock, and experimental--it just wasn't always occurring simultaneously. As a performance ensemble they didn't consistently gel. But that's really challenging for a group of eleven musicians (2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello, 1 bass, 2 guitars, 1 sax, drums, 1 background vocal, lead vocal/percussion/guitar - Fielder) who don't all live in the same state geographically or musically; there were clearly a lot of different performance personalities in effect. I'm definitely hoping to see more of them in the coming months. They'll be playing again at the final Urb Alt Festival date 21 July 2007, 7pm at the Apple Store - SoHo (last I checked Urb Alt isn't yet listed on the Apple site). LOCATION UPDATE: The UrbAlt Festival's final date again plays at Shrine World Music Venue in Harlem.

Unfortunately, I missed a great line-up at Saturday's Urb Alt which included Kaki King backed by the strings of the Muthawit Orchestra, OMG, Devi (a power trio fronted by Deb DeSalvo who apparently can seriously shred), and the Monika H. Band. A previous Festival evening which I missed featured Res, bummer, bummer.

Endnote: Even the Brooklyn Museum has a MySpace page...clearly if you're in the arts this is now a must. If the page loads slowly you'll notice the museum is gendered as female in its profile. Hmm...


At 9:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey. I'm sorry you didn't get to see us play at the Museum. It was an excellent time. I hereby cordially invite you to the House of Yes on July 28th where we'll be playing with Sankofa. I believe our set is really late, like after midnight, so you got plenty of time to catch us.

--Doron Flake of The Smyrk

At 7:34 PM, Blogger John K said...

I wish I'd known about this--wow! What a great writeup!

At 1:03 PM, Anonymous felice said...

thank you for the kind words. i'm glad you liked the show. i'm interested now to read something but ruth frankenburg. was unfamiliar with her work and am sorry at her passing.


At 12:56 PM, Blogger audiologo said...

Doron, thanks for the invite, I'd heard about the 28th. John, thanks for the comments, next time I'll shoot you a line via other channels. Felice, you're definitely welcome, it was great to see Faith at last. I hope you get a chance to check out Ruth Frankenberg's work.

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