Listening Liberally To Kobo Town, Live
On Tuesday, November 14, we witnessed another in a fine series of events under the rubric of "Listen Liberally." These New York City events showcase bands and offer a chill place for fans and D.I.Y people in the music industry to see them. This most recent event was the record release party of Kobo Town, a pan-Caribbean music group from Canada that has updated Trinidadian calypso and mixed it with reggae and other regional music, while still keeping the traditions of fable-style storytelling and political commentary. Led by Drew Gonsalves, primary song writer, vocalist, cuatro (a four-string mini guitar) and guitar player, Kobo Town has created something unique, a rarity in today's musical environment fraught with the cannibalism of music styles, little innovation or even creativity.
The show started off with friends and fans milling about Club Midway getting lubricated, or should I say prepped for the show. With the music space in the bar's basement (a concession to the new well-heeled residents of Avenue B) I cringed, since the sound in most places like this is loud, shrill and muddy. All right for generic punk, horrible for anything else. When the band took the stage and started playing, to my surprise, the sound was excellent. It was also clear that this band sounded so good because of touring off their new record Independence. There is nothing like touring to make a band tight.
The show started with "Half of the Houses." Beginning with Gonsalves' voice, the song jumped into a full on roots/dub reggae number. Bass player Pat Giunta and drummer Rob Milicevic laid down a serious Roots Radics-style groove, peppered by Cesco Emmanuel on lead guitar and Derek Thorne on percussion, conga and djembe. As they went through a set that consisting mostly of songs off the new CD, it was clear that between their last visit to New York a year ago and this show, that the recording and touring had turned a good band who played a nice set into an awesome band playing great.
After this straight up dub, they went to the other pole of their musical world, the traditional sounding calypso tune "Trinity," a sun drenched island love song that got backs off the wall and started the staid Tuesday crowd moving. "Abatina" followed. This song brought forth more of the group's signature sound, a blend of calypso melody, reggae beats and call/response backup vocals.
By this time the crowd of Kobo Town cognoscenti and newbies was on the floor dancing, unable to keep that somnambulant New York City cool pose. While the show, like the CD, had moments of danceable fun (aforementioned "Trinity" and Higher Than Mercy) the overall theme of Kobo Town is hope and struggle, expressed through music that is both marching strong and grooving happily.
The song "St.James" is a signature number for this band, especially live, because it has everything that good about the band. The beat is spacious like the best reggae, but the bass line has the strident macho quality of old school Afro Cuban music - think Cachao (if you don't know ask somebody). Percussionist Thorne played melodic riffs on cowbell and conga drums. Gonsalves' cuatro has a folkloric sound that brings up juice from the music's roots. His vocals have an unaffected power and simplicity reminiscent of Peter Tosh or Barrington Levy.
The lyrics express the rebellious spirit of old and new calypso - and the music of cultural resistence everywhere: "In the pool of our sorrow, in the sea of our wrong / Like a pothound sniffs the ground for a bone / For something thrown away to call his own... / Hope whispers into the air of night ‘brother, haul yuh tail this town is mine'/ St James night is falling down / Like an eyelid closing on the town / The whole place like a boil ready to bus'/ St. James pray for us."
"Sing Out Shout Out," which opens the CD, closed the set. Over a classic reggae one drop complete with a bouncing step in the bass and drums and sweet, offbeat guitar, Gonsalves sings the story and history of imperialism and control: "New name new flag same old game while the lucky laugh and the poor endure having lost the will to fight again / Well I remember when we were young and hope was strong." Mr. Thorne was a treat throughout the concert but especially on his show stopping djembe solo and conga work on this song.
Overall, Kobo Town delivered. The tightly and powerfully performed songs possessed cohesion, dynamics and clarity that went beyond the recorded versions, excellent though they may be. And isn't that what we all want from a live show?