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(Above: Rodrigo y Gabriela bring their main set at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Mo., to a joyous end with “Humana.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

About a third of the way through her set on Friday night, Gabriela Quintero explained her pact with the Uptown Theater crowd. She and Rodrigo Sanchez promised to play only acoustic guitars if the audience let the pair play whatever they wanted.

The audience in the crowded theater responded enthusiastically to almost everything thrown at it in the 100-minute set. The rapt attention the acoustic instrumental music commanded spoke to the pair’s skill and ingenuity.

The music was a mixture of Mexican, Irish, African, metal and folk, leading to another of Quintero’s maxims: They don’t label their music because then they’d be trapped playing to that label. With no classification, they can — and do — play anything.

Rodrigo y Gabriela started performing together in their native Mexico in the late ’90s. By the new millennium, the pair had relocated to Dublin and caught the eye of Damien Rice and David Gray. Their first album came out in 2002. In the dozen years since, they have released an album almost yearly, alternating studio material with live albums.

rygFriday’s performance touched on many of those albums and also previewed material slated for release next year. With no new album since 2012’s “Area 52,” Sanchez admitted there wasn’t really a reason for the duo to be touring. They just wanted to play.

While both guitarists are virtuosos, Quintero displayed an especially strong right hand. Viciously strumming without a pick, she summoned a plethora of textures and rhythms. Often treating her guitar like a percussive instrument, she was easily able to generate as much kick as a bass drum. Quintero’s skill with a wah pedal also added to her arsenal.

Against this backdrop, Sanchez showed amazing dexterity with his left hand, lacing songs with intricate riffs and solos. Sanchez also wasn’t shy about showing off his metal roots. He tossed Metallica riffs between songs a few times, and threw in some Megadeth for good measure. A full cover of Metallica’s “Orion” showed why the pair have earned the respect of their metal heroes. A right-turn cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” generated the biggest applause of the night.

The sound was immaculate. Both instruments were close mic’d, adding the squeak of fingers on the fretboards and sound of Sanchez’s pick hitting the strings to the mix. When inattentive fans started talking, the rest of the audience had no qualms about shutting them up.

Although their songs have no words, Sanchez and Quintero had no trouble keeping the crowd involved. At one point Sanchez had a three-part clap circulating around the theater. The two’s infectious energy — Quintero relished jumping around the stage — kept fans on their feet for most of the last half of the set.

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(Above: The second part of “The Night London Burned,” a 30-minute documentary about Joe Strummer’s final concert and onstage reunion with Mick Jones.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Note: Every year on Christmas Eve, we mark the passing of Clash singer and musical legend Joe Strummer. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Strummer’s passing on Dec. 22, 2002.

“War Cry”

The limp reception to Joe Strummer’s 1989 solo album “Earthquake Weather” didn’t sit well with its creator. But just because Strummer was a stranger to the studio for nearly a decade, doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved with music.

41R6GY31MNL._SL500_AA300_One of Strummer’s great discoveries during the 1990s was the Glastonbury Festival. The three-day summer festival combined two of Strummer’s passions: live music and camping. Every June his entourage would grow, eventually becoming a makeshift community dubbed “Strummerville.” Performances by the Prodigy, Bjork, Elastica and others at the festival fostered a love for techno music that would influence Strummer’s music for the rest of his life.

The song “War Cry” from the “Grosse Pointe Blank” soundtrack is the most overtly electronic-influenced track in Strummer’s catalog. The swirling melody is carried by a pulsing keyboard riff, but the track’s energy comes from Strummer’s vigorous guitar playing. The six-minute instrumental is the only piece from Strummer’s film score to see official release.

Strummer produced the original “Grosse Pointe Blank”  soundtrack and included two tracks from his old band. The first volume was so successful a second was released. “War Cry” was unfortunately buried near the end of the sequel.

“MacDougal Street Blues,” Strummer’s contribution to a Jack Kerouac spoken word compilation also released in 1997, found Strummer working in the same style. Kerouac sounds like he was recorded in a bathroom, but Strummer’s musical backing almost seems like a skeletal cousin to “War Cry.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but “War Cry” signaled the end of Joe Strummer’s wilderness years.

“Bhindi Bhagee”

The first time I heard this song was on a Saturday afternoon broadcast of World Café. I was in the car with my dad and halfway through the second verse I commented that the track sounded like someone from the Clash recording a Paul Simon song arranged by Peter Gabriel. DJ David Dye confirmed one third of my theory, but I still don’t think the other two guesses missed the mark by much.

globalThe musical re-awakening Strummer experienced at Glastonbury carried over to his appearance (as a guest, not an artist) at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD music festival. Listening to the acts from around the world perform, hanging out with musicians like Donovan and spending time at Gabriel’s Real World recording studio finally provided the tipping point for him to get serious about making his own music again.

The music Strummer made with the Mescaleros was diverse, encompassing dance and electronic, country, punk and rock. On the band’s sophomore release, “Global A Go-Go,” Strummer branched out big time for their sophomore release. The platter more than lives up to its name, featuring lots of violin, exotic percussion, flute and other world music flourishes.

“Bhindi Bhagee” opens with acoustic guitar and flute and features Strummer delivering his intricate lyrics in a laid-back conversational style. Like Simon, Strummer lets the song unspool like a story. The chorus is basically a list of everything Strummer hopes to encompass with the arrangement. The best part comes at the bridge, where Strummer honestly explains where he’s at musically.

So anyway, I told him I was in a band
He said, “Oh yeah, oh yeah – what’s your music like?”
I said, “It’s um, um, well, it’s kinda like
You know, it’s got a bit of, um, you know.”

Yeah, all of that and a lot more.

“White Riot (live)”

Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon weren’t looking for trouble when they attended the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, but they shouldn’t have been surprised a riot broke out. Founded as response to the Notting Hill race riots and the racial issues plaguing England in the late 1950s, the carnival had become increasingly violent in its second decade.

Joe aCTONAs Strummer watched the England’s racial minorities physically challenging the authorities, he wished his fellow Caucasians would have the courage to take a similar stand.  Although written long before the Occupy movement, Strummer finally found a body willing to pick up his gauntlet:

“All the power’s in the hands/of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street/Too chicken to even try it.”

Along with the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “White Riot” kicked off England’s punk movement. As the band’s debut single, it clearly had special meaning to Strummer, who performed the song as the final encore during his last tour with the Mescaleros in 2001 and 2002. (An early version of the song has Strummer singing the first verse a capella before the full band kicks in. It’s an interesting thought, but the message is much stronger in the final arrangement.) The already-potent track became even more powerful when Strummer invited Mick Jones onstage to play it with the Mescaleros at what would be Strummer’s final concert.

The duo, sharing the stage for the first time in nearly 20 years, clearly had fun with the reggae bounce of “Bankrobber,” stretching it to over nine minutes. “White Riot” is the tour de force, though. After calling for the song “in the key of A,” Strummer almost seems to second guess himself. As the guitarist – I’d like to think its Jones, but don’t know for sure – plows into the opening chords, Strummer hastily calls a halt to the song, instructing the drummer to count it off properly. The aggression and anger in the original version – Strummer almost sounds determined to push you out in front of the cops if you won’t fight willingly – now shows hints of age and wisdom that suggest that while this is one way to bring about change, it isn’t necessarily the only path to revolution. It’s a subtle change, but doesn’t cost the performance any of its original urgency.

Less than five minutes after ending “White Riot,” Strummer and Jones concluded the concert with a blistering “London’s Burning.” Barely five weeks later, Strummer was gone.

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By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Nick Urata remembers his first gig in Kansas City – the band’s bus crashed right in front of where they were going to play, the Hurricane.

Urata and his fellow members in Devotchka had more lush surroundings on Saturday night. Although the balcony of the Midland was closed and the floor was about half full, Urata’s soaring voice filled the cavernous space. Urata clearly appreciated his surroundings, thanking the crowd for letting him play in such a “classy joint.”

Devotchka – the name is Russian slang for “girl” – may be based in Denver, but their music covers the map, pulling in elements of mariachi, gypsy and French music and indie rock. The quartet’s theatric sound is built on layers and textures, much of it cribbed in the same Eastern European rhythms and energy used by Gogol Bordello, although Devotchka’s music is significantly less aggressive.

The musicians’ versatility meant the sound could change dramatically from song to song. Concert opener “The Alley” drew in the crowd with its propulsive rhythms, courtesy of drummer Shawn King and percussion from touring member Mauro Refosco, a veteran of David Byrne’s band and Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace project. Later, Refosco moved to keyboards and King played trumpet to give “We’re Leaving” a South-of-the-border feel.

Tom Hagerman alternated primarily between accordion and violin while Jeanie Schroder held down the bottom end on upright bass and a Sousaphone adorned with red Christmas lights. Hagerman’s accordion and Schroder’s Sousaphone tag-teamed nicely on the appropriately named “Basso Profundo.”

Of all of the high-caliber musicianship onstage, however, Urata’s singing was easily the most impressive instrument. His powerful tenor always hovered over everything else onstage, always complementing the arrangements underneath. His articulate enunciation effortlessly unspooled the short-story-like quality of the group’s lyrics.

Urata’s falsetto danced delicately with Hagerman’s violin on “Undone” and  he displayed near operatic range on “We’re Leaving.” During the encore Urata pulled a page from vocal legend Freddy Mercury’s playbook and engaged the audience in an operatic call and response. Just like Queen at Wembly, Urata pulled it off flawlessly.

Urata’s talents extended well beyond his esophagus, however. During “Poland,” Schroder bellowed a rare Sousaphone solo which Urata countered by playing the Theramin. During “Ranchero” he delivered a guitar solo that played off King’s drums like Tom chasing Jerry.

Several screens behind the band displayed abstract images, sometimes superimposed with close-ups of a soloist, adding another layer texture to the presentation. Devotchka got a real-life assist during “Vengo! Vengo!” when two women came out and performed a fabric dance high above the stage. The dancers returned during “Contrabanda,” performing a shadow dance behind two of the screens.

The duo performed in front of those same screens a few songs later, twirling umbrellas as a kaleidoscope of colors washed over them during “100 Other Lovers.” A subtle light show also enhanced the atmosphere.

All the props, lighting and extra space helped, but the band proved they didn’t need a big room to work their magic. For the encore, Urata and Hagerman emerged alone to deliver a stripped-down, straightforward version of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” The performance was just as magical and transfixing as the best moments from the main set. The rest of the ensemble returned for two more songs, stretching out and flexing some hard rock muscle on “Ranchero” and leading a sing-along through the waltzy ballad “You Love Me.”

Setlist: The Alley;Head Honcho; Queen of the Surface Streets; Poland >The Clockwise Witness; The Man from San Sebastian; We’re Leaving; Vengo! Vengo!; Exhaustible; All the Sand in all the Sea; How It Ends; Basso Profundo; Undone; Contrabanda; I Cried Like a Silly Boy; 100 Other Lovers; Mexican. Encore: Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Neil Young cover); Ranchero; You Love Me.

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(Above: The title song from Naomi Shelton’s debut album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The first month of 2010 is almost in the history books. Fortunately, there’s still time to take one last look at some overlooked releases from the final quarter of 2009.

The Dodos – “Time to Die”

The Dodos third album isn’t a major departure from 2007’s “Visiter.” Several subtle elements, however, make “Time to Die” an improvement. First off, the San Francisco-based indie duo has added vibraphonist Keaton Snyder to their ranks. His playing adds new textures and new rhythms to the songs. Like Vampire Weekend, the Dodos add elements of African music to their arrangements. Unlike Vampire Weekend, though, the Dodos don’t use world music as a template. They incorporate its ingredient into already solid songs. At times the album recalls a more sophisticated Shins. “Time To Die” is filled with a high sense of melody and smart indie rock songwriting bolstered by intricate arrangements that serve the song.

Blakroc – “Blakroc”

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have been making great garage blues albums for nearly a decade as the Black Keys. After about five albums, however, some staleness started to creep into the formula. After recruiting Danger Mouse to produce their 2008 release, and Auerbach’s early ’09 solo album, the pair dropped their biggest transformation. “Blakroc” pairs the Keys with former Roc-a-fella co-owner Damon Dash and a host of MCs, including Mos Def, Ludacris, Q-Tip, Pharoahe Monch and members of the Wu Tang Clan. The result is the expected mash-up of rap vocals and raw gutbucket rock that exceeds expectations. Auerbach’s dirty, fuzzy guitars and Carney’s drums add an urgency often lacking in the urban world of sampling. In turn, the MCs feed off the vibe, responding with more bounce and personality in their delivery. More, please.

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens – “What Have You Done, My Brother?”

Naomi Shelton’s back story should sound familiar to fans of Bettye LaVette. Shelton palled around with pre-fame Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Lou Rawls. Despite their encouragement, success eluded Shelton, who played regular gigs around New York City. Thirty years later, Shelton became part of the “Daptone Super-Soul Revue,” but it took another decade for her debut album to emerge. “What Have You Done, My Brother?” is a classic gospel album that sounds like it could have been cut 50 years ago. Despite its traditional arrangements, the album finds contemporary resonance in the title song, which questions the war in Iraq. Shelton’s cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is especially poignant. A survivor of the civil rights movement, Shelton combines the longing of Cooke’s vision with the optimism of the Obama-era.

Various Artists – “Daptone Gold”

Daptone Records found fame with the diminutive dynamite Sharon Jones, but the entire stable should appeal to Jones’ fans. “Daptone Gold” is a 22-track sampler of the Daptone roster. While Jones is appropriately represented (sometimes through non-album tracks), there are no bum cuts. The old school gospel of Naomi Shelton sets nicely next to Antibalas’ political Afrobeat and the instrumental soul of the Budos Band. Other artists include Stax throwbacks Lee Fields and Charles Bradley. Hip hop fans will recognize “Make the Road By Walking,” the Menahan Street Band track Jay-Z smartly sampled for his own “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is).” At 78 minutes, this generous sampler will certainly send newcomers diving into the back catalog for more.

Rakim – “The Seventh Seal”

Rakim made his name as one of rap’s premier MCs with his groundbreaking albums with Eric B in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s been 10 years since the world has heard anything from Rakim. During that decade he toured sporadically and signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label. The prospect of Dre making beats for Rakim made fans salivate, but unfortunately “The Seventh Seal” is not that long-awaited album. It’s difficult to forget about that hypothetical masterpiece with all the b-list production that plagues “The Seventh Seal.” Rakim sports enough killer flow to justify his reputation, but tracks like “Won’t Be Long” and album opener “How To Emcee” are more stilted and dated than anything on “Paid in Full” or “Follow the Leader.” While there are enough moments on “The Seventh Seal” to make it a must-have for old school fans, casual listeners should probably just ask the devoted to cull a few cuts from this for a killer Rakim mixtape.

(Below: “Holy Are You,” one of the better cuts off Rakim’s “The Seventh Seal.”)

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(Above: Vusi Mahlasela at Live 8.)
By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bela Fleck has taken his banjo to some unexpected forays into jazz, classical and holiday music. For his latest project, not only did Fleck bring his banjo to Africa, but he brought several of his African collaborators with him on tour.

For three hours Fleck and his Africa Project mesmerized a half-full Uptown Theater Thursday night.

Starting promptly at 8, Fleck opened with a 10 minute solo improvisation based on the melodies and techniques he picked up in Africa. After introducing thumb pianist and Anania Ngoliga and guitarist John Kitime from Tanzania, Fleck ceded the stage to the duo. That set the pattern for the night: Fleck’s introduction, a couple solo numbers followed by a couple duets.

Ngoliga’s thumb piano was a wooden box about the size of a sampler with about three dozen metal strips of varying lengths attached. Backed by Kitime’s buoyant acoustic guitar, the pair sang about their native country. After 15 minutes, Fleck came out for “Kabibi.” Ngoliga sang that one in a voice so high it almost sounded like a children’s song. His happiness was so infectious it’s hard to imagine anyone not cracking a smile while listening.

There were only two drawbacks to Fleck’s format. Just as it seemed the performers were getting in a groove, it was time for the next act. Perhaps more frustrating was the high level of entertainment and musicianship from the artists. Each could easily carry a show of their own. With any luck, some of them will come back through again.

On the other hand, Fleck is to be commended for introducing these musicians to his audience. During his set, kora player Toumani Diabate recalled the last time he was in Kansas City … 18 years ago. It is very conceivable this was the first (and only) performance our town will see from the rest of the artists.

Next up was D’Gary and Mario, a guitarist and percussionist from Madagascar. D’Gary’s playing style was like Spanish flamenco married to Ali Farka Toure’s African blues. D’Gary’s playing was virtuosic, yet warm and inviting. He was joined by Mario who played a small tin can filled with glass, sealed and attached to a stick. It may not sound impressive, but somehow Mario managed to turn the simple instrument into an uber-maraca.

After sitting in with the pair for one number, Fleck brought out bluegrass violinist Casey Drieson to join them on “Kinetsa.” Drieson was initially absent in the mix. Frustrated, he walked across the stage and started playing into D’Gary’s microphone. The cheers that erupted were so great that when Drieson tried to retreat, Fleck urged him to take another solo.

(Above: The six-string wonders of D’Gary.)

Vusi Mahlesela came out after a 20-minute intermission. His guitar style was closest to the Western tradition. It’s easy to imagine him in the South African equivalent of a Greenwich Village coffee shop. A former anti-apartheid activist, Mahlesela sang in an expressive tenor. Like most of the performers, he didn’t sing much in English, but he put his whole body into what he said.

The joyous “Thula Mana” was dedicated to Mahlesela’s grandma, who protected him from the Afrikaans police force. If Fleck added the least to this pairing, it is only because Mahlesela’s presence was so complete.

Finally, Fleck introduced kora master Toumani Diabate. A native of Mali, Diabate has collaborated with Taj Mahal and Bjork and was the best-known of Fleck’s guests. Clad in a traditional golden robe, Diabate’s instrument was the most traditional and formal of the night. After a long solo piece, Fleck came out and urged Diabate to explain his instrument. Diabate’s kora looked like an industrial broomstick with many protruding strings stuck in a gigantic half-gourd. After demonstrating the four-finger picking technique (thumbs and two index fingers), Diabate slowly built a song starting with the bassline, adding melody and finally improvisation.

Dierson returned – this time with a working mic – to join Fleck and Diabate on “Throw Down Your Heart.” Banjo and kora work well together because both instruments are treble-heavy and prone to twang. Playing double stops on the low strings, Dierson’s violin was a pleasant counterpoint that added fresh textures.

The night ended with everyone onstage together for an improvised jam and Mahlesela’s “When You Come Back,” a tribute to his home continent.

Western artists have been mining African music since before they wouldn’t play Sun City, but Fleck may be the most accommodating. He acted as less a host than a facilitator who was honored to sit in with his guests.

The collaborations were so organic it seemed they could have taken place anywhere – the studio, living room, outside. They just happened to be experienced in the Uptown this night.

(Below: Toumani Diabate rocks the kora.)

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(Above: The Kora Jazz Trio in concert.)

By Joel Francis

Continuing The Daily Record’s look at the state of jazz today, here is the second of three installments shedding light on 15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years. Note that these musicians are not necessarily the 15 greatest jazz artists to arrive since 1990. A brief listen to any of them, though, should more than persuade the most ardent purist that jazz is alive and well.

Ravi Coltrane

Not only has Ravi Coltrane followed in his famous father’s footsteps as a musician, but he’s established himself with his dad’s instrument. The child of John and Alice Coltrane (Ravi was two when his dad died), Ravi cut his teeth with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones before finally stepping out on his own. In little over 10 years, he’s build a strong catalog that would sound just as sweet under a different surname. Coltrane is currently on the road in a new septet celebrating 70 years of Blue Note Records. Albums to start with: Mad 6, In Flux.

Kora Jazz Trio

Comprised of pianist Abdoulaye Diabaté (who is not related to kora master Toumani Diabate), griot percussionist Moussa Sissokho and kora player Djeli Moussa Diawara, this trio deftly blends their African heritage with American jazz. Throughout their three albums, they have tackled songs by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and the Buena Vista Social Club and delivered over a dozen dazzling originals. Imagine McCoy Tyner getting lost in an African marketplace and you’re getting close. Albums to start with: Part II, Part III

Diana Krall

Pianist and singer Diana Krall grew up surrounded by her dad’s extensive collection of Fats Waller albums, but ended up with a style and sound closer to that of Ralph Sharon, Tony Bennett’s longtime arranger and accompanist. Although Krall’s music is certainly not aggressive or pushing any boundaries, dismissing her music as smooth jazz for dinner parties would be a mistake. Her performances of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jimmy McHugh have a freshness, energy and vitality lacking in other “supper club” performers. Krall’s most recent album, “The Girl in the Other Room,” leans heavily on original material written with her husband, Elvis Costello. Albums to start with: Love Scenes, The Girl in the Other Room

Medeski, Martin and Wood

Decades of touring have made the bass/keyboard/drums trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood one of today’s tightest ensembles. Their experimental, groove-based sound is broad enough to be equally at home at both Newport and Bonnaroo without changing a thing. Early pieces like “Hermeto’s Daydream” sound like Dave Brubeck run through “A Clockwork Orange,” while newer material features hip hop artists like DJ Logic, and guitarists Marc Ribot and John Scofield. Albums to start with: Notes from the Underground, Combustication.

Jason Moran

Pianist Jason Moran only has 10 years of recording under his belt, but he’s covered a lot of territory in that time. His albums contain interpretations of Prokofiev and Afrika Bambaataa interspersed with original compositions and spoken-word pieces. In addition to releasing seven albums under his own name, Moran has worked and recorded with Andrew Hill, Cassandra Wilson, Christian McBride, Don Byron, Ravi Coltrane and dozens more. Only 34 years old, Moran is just getting started. Albums to start with: Modernistic, Same Mother

Keep Reading: 15 Jazz Greats to Emerge in the Last 20 Years

Part One

Part Three

Five Legends Still Adding to Their Legacies

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