Brooklyn world music legends Antibalas brought their multi-headed Afrobeat monster to SF last Monday at Great American Music Hall, and per usual, they got asses shaking and limbs akimbo. The group took a break from touring a few years ago while they arranged and performed music for the Broadway hit Fela! but have returned with the same intensity and rhythmic complexity, as well as a new album released around summertime. The city was lucky enough to have them play Outside Lands Music Festival, but fans witnessed a mere 40-minute set. Monday allowed the large ensemble the time needed to develop a proper set while showcasing material new and old.
The Great American was nicely packed by the time they the band waltzed out onto stage, opening the show with an instrumental number, easing their way into the evening’s show. Having seen these guys live for over 10 years, I quickly noticed a few members absent on this tour, mainly horn section madman, saxplayer and occasional MC, Stuart Bogie. Even with the lack of some original players, the band never seems to miss a beat. Once Amayo took the stage to belt out his unique brand of African phrasing, the crowd kicked it up a notch. “Ratcatcher”, off the new self-titled album, leapt from the gates with the rhythmic intensity of Africa ’70, one of Fela Kuti’s former touring bands.
Next up was the premier single from their latest album Antibalas, and though it sounds like a searing commentary on the state of economic affairs, it rather refers to the filthy hooks led by the horn section. “Dirty Money” is certainly a key track on their latest endeavor, and was the first taste of the new album months ago. Most tracks, like this one, clock in at around 10 minutes live as the band bounces between full band grooves and member solos.
“Him Belly Go No Sweet” rounded out a suite of new tracks with an infectious call and respond section, another characterization of Afrobeat music which lends it’s connection to the crowd even further. Fela Kuti’s unique brand of Yoruba, funk, highlife and jazz was crafted in the 1970’s and is still alive and well in the hands of groups like Antibalas, Ariya Astrobeat Arkestra and Fela’s sons Femi and Seun. The chant,call and response style was also integral to this Nigerian-born form of music, lending to it’s occasional hypnotic quality.
A debut song was the surprise of the evening. New song “Gold Rush” has been played only a handful of times, and it is refreshing to know they are still writing, as this band has it’s hands in many musical projects. The version of the new track we got opened with a intro keyboard section. Victor Axelrod, a longtime member, utilized a sound akin to the Clavinet to build up the frenzy that was about to ensue. From there, each member of the horn section each got their stab at a fast-paced solo. It’s a treat when a brand new song turns out to be one of the highlights of a show.
They dipped into the back catalogue for “Sanctuary,” which allowed everyone catch their breath if only for a few. From there the band played out a great set that capped around two hours of sweaty good times. After over a decade of touring, this band has truly garnered fans in every corner of the globe. They are hands down one of the best Afrobeat bands out there.