Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Vusi Mahlasela and Jolly Boys in NYC

I've seen so many great concerts in the past week, my head is spinning.  Here's a quick report on two of them.  First, Vusi Mahlasela returned to SOBs on February 22.  I first saw him playing solo there close to 20 years ago.  He came this time with just his lead guitarist, who remained tastefully riffing and occasionally harmonizing in the background for a show that was, essentially, all Vusi!

Vusi has been doing a fairly standard set in recent years, so it was great to hear him break out songs from his tasty new CD, "Say Africa" (ATO Records), produced by Taj Mahal.  The title track is a heart-tugger, essentially saying that wherever Vusi goes, it's Africa.  Vusi's songwriting is quite sophisticated, full of Paul Simon-like subtleties and twists.  But what really carries the day is Vusi's vocal.  He is, hands down, one of the strongest singers in African music today, capable of crooning, growling, whispering, and wailing--all in a single song.  He's also a terrific story teller, with a dry wit and a big heart--a genuine African troubadour.   And he hardly looks a day older than that first time I saw him in the early '90s.  Seems music is a fountain of youth for this guy.  Go Vusi!

On February 24, I headed to the Hiro Ballroom to catch Jamaica's premier mento band, The Jolly Boys.  These guys used to come to Boston when I lived there in the late '80s, but it has been a long time since they've appeared in the US.  Actually, it turns out the the band has seen a lot of turnover.  The septuagenarians of that era have been replaced by a new set of septuagenarians, led by one dynamo of a front man, Albert Minott.  Talk about a fountain of youth.  These guys may not look young, but man, their energy and spirit had the room--packed, by the way--rocking from the first note to the last.

Mento is a kind of folksy, proto-reggae, featuring banjo plinking and bass lines played on an enormous thumb piano called a rumba box, that the player--in this case Derrick "Johnny" Henry--sits on while plonking out his lines.  The instrument is remarkably versatile and effective, especially considering that it has only five notes.

Rumba box!
This time around, we didn't get to hear many of the classic mento songs the Jolly Boys built their reputation on.  That's because they were featuring numbers from their surprising new release "Great Expectations" (Geejam Records).   The CD is a collection of most unlikely cover songs by artists ranging from The Doors (Riders on the Storm) to Johnny Cash (Ring of Fire), to Amy Winehouse (Rehab).  Albert carried off that last one with a wink and a nod, and total sincerity.  Honestly, this sounds like a bad idea, but these guys were having a ball with these songs, and putting a truly original spin on them.  I'm telling you, you have not lived until you've heard The Jolly Boys digging into Lou Reed's "Perfect Day."  Quite sublime!

 The CD is highly recommended, but don't miss a chance to see these guys live if you can.  It will make your week.  And besides, they won't be around forever.   Or will they....

Banning Eyre
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