Live Music + Gig Reviews

Rokia Traoré + Sweet Billy Pilgrim @ Barbican, London

29 May 2009

A curious line-up, this. A crowd visibly buzzing with excitement for the latest visit to these shores by Malian superstar Rokia Traoré were first ‘treated’ to a warm-up by the very white and knotty art-pop of Sweet Billy Pilgrim.

The visibly nervous support act was not helped by songwriter and singer Tim Elsenburg’s microphone malfunctioning (was it switched on?) for the first two songs. But when the technical problems were sorted out we were treated to an endearing, if occasionally ramshackle, set.

Some in the audience were heard to mutter ‘amateur’ under their breaths as Sweet Billy Pilgrim attempted to replicate their intricately arranged melodies and four-part harmonies from recent album Twice Born Men on stage. This was a tad unfair, as songs such as Kalypso and God In The Details really shone. Drummer Al Hamer really does need to tone down his pub landlord shtick between songs, however.

The collective intake of breath when the diminutive Traoré and her five-piece band bounded on stage was something to behold. But this being the Barbican, bums stayed firmly on their comfy seats even as Traoré and her band locked into an irresistible groove from the word go.

Traoré certainly knows how to pick her musicians. Jazzers Eric Lohrer (guitar) and Emiliano Turi (drums) in combination with extravagantly beafroed funk bassist Christophe Minck and ngoni player Mamah Diabaté were note perfect all night and swung like hell.

A petite presence at the front of the stage, Traoré truly comes alive when the music kicks in and she begins to move along to the beat. Assuming the kind of shapes that most of us can only dream of achieving, her dancing was lithe, rhythmic and very sexy.

And when Traoré opened her mouth the second collective intake of breath could be heard above the music. The perfect acoustics of the Barbican meant her voice sounded like it was everywhere, circling around our ears like a bird in full flight. In stark contrast to Elsenburg’s woes earlier on, when Traoré slipped away from the mic her vocals barely dropped in volume.

Drawing from last year’s superb Tchamantché album meant there were highlights aplenty. Zen progressed from a stately opening to explode into a full-throated band workout that took the breath away. Aimer shimmered in a faithful reading that provided the exception rather than the rule for the night’s proceedings.

The intimate Dounia was turned into a big beast of a song, with Lohrer wigging out like a rock god towards the end. It set the tone for a more rock-orientated second half, with Traoré strapping on her electric guitar and leading the band from the front. Maybe the gig lost a bit of steam from this point onwards, not least because Traoré loses some of her magical aura when she hides behind a guitar.

Truth be told, this was still streets ahead of what so many other artists are capable of. Romeo Stoddart from The Magic Numbers reprised his role from last year’s Africa Express and Africa Now gigs, popping up on guitar and vocals on an extended reading of Tounka, after which a curious outburst of heckling burst forth from the circle seats. Traoré silenced this nonsense with an impassioned speech about African émigrés and rebuilding the continent for a brighter future.

Traoré reappeared for an encore and urged us all to start dancing. Which we did, of course, although the extended ‘meet the band’ sequence did flag after about 15 minutes and one funk bass solo too many. Our interest perked up again when backing singer Naba Traoré treated us to a deliciously dirty and very sexy display of booty shaking, before Rokia playfully tripped her up and brought the night to a rousing close. A magical evening from a magical artist.

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