Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Seun Kuti

In 1997, when Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti died of an AIDS-related cause, his youngest son, Seun Kuti, was 14. The elder Kuti had pioneered a danceable genre called Afrobeat that blended guitar-led highlife with jazz, James Brown-style funk and chanted, political vocals. Now 25, Seun is attempting to carry on his father's legacy, leading Egypt 80, a 12-musician ensemble that includes members from Fela's group.

On Monday night at the 9:30 club, Seun, the band and two female dancers demonstrated their mastery of Afrobeat. Unlike Femi Kuti, Seun's older half-brother whose music blends the genre with modern programmed beats, Seun has changed his father's sound only with a slight increase in tempo and compositions that, while long, do not quite equal his dad's 20-minute-plus efforts.

The band came on first and quickly demonstrated its skills at laying down a booming, infectious polyrhythmic groove. Egypt 80 includes a conga player, a trap drummer, a keyboardist, two guitarists, a bass player, a wooden block percussionist, a shakere gourd percussionist, two sax players and two trumpet players. They all fit together to convey the band's bouncy, exultant sound.

Seun arrived onstage for the second song, one of Fela's, dressed in tight pants and a bright dress shirt like something his father wore in the 1970s. While his dancers were undulating in scanty clothes, Seun joined in on his alto sax before switching to call-and-response vocals with the dancers.

During "Na Oil," his attack on politicians and oil companies, Seun, caught up in the rhythm, bent over and shook his bottom in front of the crowd as the horn section vamped and the guitarists dispensed entrancing, high-pitched lines. "Mosquito Song," with the conga player thumping a drum lying horizontal on the stage, finished the pre-encore portion joyously, although Seun's Fela-like shirtless look and raised fist at the end left one wondering when this young performer will start creating his own mystique.

-- Steve Kiviat

Fleet Foxes

In another era, Fleet Foxes would have been megastars and not just indie hotshots. The Seattle quintet's biggest strength: singer Robin Pecknold's voice and the stunning vocal harmonies he creates with his band mates, the kind that made icons of boomer acts like the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills, Nash and (sometimes) Young. Today, the scuffling big record companies are more interested in talent-like substance than actual talent, leaving Fleet Foxes to flourish on the indie Sub Pop label.

Monday's show at the Black Cat was originally scheduled for the 200-capacity Backstage, but a recent wave of hype turned it into an advance sellout on the club's 800-capacity Mainstage. So maybe that megastardom is indeed in the cards.

The band will go as far as singer Pecknold's voice will take them. It's a soaring, spectacular instrument. And despite a nagging cold that resulted in plenty of water guzzling and sniffling, it was in fine form. The band's gentle indie-folk offerings are rarely memorable, mostly serving as a backdrop for the vocals. Fleet Foxes will never be accused of "rocking," and that's for the best -- the loudest moments of the performance drowned out the vocals, stripping the band of its identity. The vaguely nature-themed lyrics were also afterthoughts; much more affecting was when Pecknold would simply stretch out one of his many chants of "Oh!"

Most songs either started or ended with hushed harmonies, giving off a hymnal vibe that commanded silence from the audience, never easy at the Black Cat. In fact, just a few seconds into set opener "Sun Giant," all chatter ceased. That certainly wasn't the case between songs, as unintelligible and sometimes unintelligent banter wrecked any sense of flow.

But stage presence can be learned. The natural beauty of Pecknold's voice is something unique. After a captivating solo rendition of "Oliver James," even his own band mates had to applaud as they filed back on stage.

-- David Malitz

© 2008 The Washington Post Company