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Monday, April 30th, 2007

Antibalas - Chicago Tribune Review

By Bob Gendron Special to the Tribune Published April 30, 2007

Hoisting a large piece of silver sheet metal over his head, Antibalas vocalist/percussionist Amayo briefly glanced at the Park West crowd as if to give them warning before bringing the noise. Shaking the material, which upon contact produced a thunderstorm of crackling sounds and lightninglike reflections, brought a violent end to "Beaten Metal," a composition whose wordless structure and organic improvisation were all the rage at a Friday night concert where messages of resistance often took the form of hypnotic grooves rather than declarative statements.

Celebrated for its political remarks and tireless performances, Antibalas has established itself as Afrobeat's primary torchbearers, an ensemble that intrigues on record but mesmerizes onstage. Partially because of a lackadaisical, medium-size audience (more than a third of which left the 2-hour show before it concluded), and partially because the set had too many extended instrumentals and too few vocalized songs, the Brooklyn-based group was unable to sustain its usual artist-audience dynamic. Not that the percussive-heavy music -- an African-cum-Latin blend of frenzied funk, guitar-scratched R&B and organ-stoked jazz -- or animated band members were responsible for the energy deficit.

When he wasn't tapping hand drums and banging cowbells, Amayo danced as if he were stepping on hot coals. Lanky trumpeter Jordan McLean provided comedic relief and approached the microphone as the Minister of Paranoia, sarcastically addressing the connection between cell phones and bees before leading the 11-member collective into "Government Magic."

And the four-piece horn section, whose brassy dialogues were played as alternating bursts, gave a simmer-down reggae feel to "Sanctuary" and a sassy sway to a cover of Fela Kuti's "Ikoyi Blindness."

Still, on an evening during which concertgoers seemed tired, the mysterious, albeit slow-moving "I.C.E." seemed out of place, inspiring table talk instead of sweaty motion.

With multiple harmonies, desert-blues riffs and swinging vibes, "War Hero" proved the opposite, its polyrhythmic spree showing how protest can be both barbed and fun.

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