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Songhoy Blues' Explosive Set Hypnotizes Thalia Hall Crowd

By Casey Moffitt in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 7, 2015 7:00PM


Songhoy Blues performed their first headling set in Chicago at the beautiful Thalia Hall Friday night supporting their debut album, Music in Exile, and made quite an impression on the small, but enthusiastic crowd gathered to see this unusual rock band from Mali.

The four men put on a dizzying display of musical skill. Although they work a variety of rhythms, the songs have a similar structure in that they are highly repetitive. It's a concept that isn't particularly new, but it's an effective way to create a hypnotic rhythm to draw you through the songs. It's a technique heard in a lot of krautrock, R&B, industrial or even funk bands.

However, instead of a steady, driving rhythm typically used by krautrock bands, or a wildly syncopated rhythm we hear in funk bands, Songhoy Blues falls somewhere in between. And they can mix it up. They moved between John Lee Hooker-type shuffles to Caribbean beats to steady rock drivers to syncopated grooves. Each song had its own distinct feel but had the commonality of a repeating rhythm.

This allowed lead guitarist Garba Touré a lot of flexibility to fly across the fretboard and he took every advantage. His tireless bluesy runs seemed to be ceaseless at times, as he kept going and going. Listening carefully, you could tell he rarely played the same run twice.

Of course this style of playing is dependent on a great rhythm section. Drummer Nathanael Dembele was a master of keeping a steady beat, switching from different rhythms all night long. He is a tricky drummer as he, too, had an uncanny ability to mix up his patterns by dropping a snare hit here or adding a hi-hat hit there all the while maintaining that steady, repetitive beat. He would bust out nimble fills, but they came in quick bursts, lasting just a handful of beats, and would drop right back into the beat.

Oumar Touré was a great complement on bass to Dembele's drumming, as he easily flowed from rhythm style to rhythm style laying down a thick groove throughout the performance.

Frontman Aliou Touré was a revelation. When he wasn't playing guitar, he dominated the microphone with melodies both beautiful and percussive. And he also showed off some wild dancing with exaggerated movement with his arms and legs in quick flashes. It was incredible to see him lead the crowd in one of these dances, and the crowd was eager to follow, even when the songs were in odd meters with rhythm patterns working in six beats rather than the traditional four we hear in a lot of rock music. The rhythm was so hypnotic that it had almost everyone moving in some way. One woman was even seen dancing with crutches.

The band played in the round as a small stage was set up in the middle of the hall's dance floor, making for an intimate performance. Had the band played on the giant main stage of the hall, the show probably would have lost some of the infectious vibes that had everybody moving and dancing. It's a small thing that would not have been missed, but it added an enjoyable element to the show.

Songhoy Blues proved to be great performers Friday night, and we can't wait until we see them again…. hopefully very soon.