Unlike last week’s afrobeat extravaganza, this time the unifying theme at the latest installment of KCRW’s World Music Festival was strong, leading women. Though hailing from California, Cuba and England respectively, tUnE-yArDs, the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club’s Omara Portuondo and Goldfrapp all captured the crowd with unique flair and style.
First up were Oakland, California’s tUnE-yArDs. Singer multi-instrumentalist Merrill Garbus took the stage alone armed with a ukulele, two drums and a texture creating repeat effect. Layering her warbled voice against ukulele stabs, she used the effect to slowly craft a voluminous swell of sounds. The combination on this opening number “Hatari” rendered a live and organic approach to what in decades past was known as cut-and-paste sampling. The rest of Garbus’ backing band joined her for the subsequent songs. At first, her unusual vocal tone made this a bit of a harder pill to swallow, but as she built through with loud thumps to the set’s conclusion on “Bizness,” which was raucous and enrapturing in its finality.
A decidedly smoother and less chaotic band followed tUnE-yArDs, a formulation of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club, entitled the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. Featuring members both tied to previous incarnations of the BVSC and also solo outings from former members Ruben Gonzalez and Ibrahim Ferrer, this new fifteen-member band performed the greatest songs from over six decades of developed musical tradition. Taking Ferrer’s place on lead vocals was Carlos Calunga, looking sharp in a white suit. Filling Ferrer’s shoes would be no easy task, but Calunga was up to the challenge. Belting out songs with a smile his breezy vocals helped bring the jam-filled venue to its feet. Half way through their set one of the greats from the BVSC story, 80-year-old Omara Portuondo, took center stage to bring the performance home. Continuing with “No Me Llores Mas” (which means “Don’t Cry for Me”) Portuondo called out with heartfelt passion each line. Her effortless delivery proved the value of experience, each line trembling with artful nuance. The group played one stellar jam after another, highlighting at times piano, percussion or trumpet, but it was “Chan Chan” that had the crowd dancing with elated glee. This was a window into a culture and time of music criminally lacking proper praise and credit.
To close off the night Goldfrapp performed to what has to be their largest headlining crowd to date. The duo of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory here expanded to a five-piece (without Gregory performing), adding an extra keyboardist, bassist and drummer to their live band. Fronted by a constant flow of artificially generated wind (flowing up Goldfrapp’s hair in epic fashion) and backlit by an out-pouring from fog machines, they opened in dramatic fashion with Black Cherry‘s “Crystalline Green.” Goldfrapp’s voice projected a pristine tone, rumbling and almost too perfect to be believable. Band members stood behind her, alternating between violin, guitar and keytar wearing flashy suits. As Goldfrapp posed on each passing verse, the group leaned heavily on material from their weaker, recent album Head First (“Head First, “Dreaming,” “Alive” and encore “Rocket”). Leaned on it so much so that not one song was played from the excellent Seventh Tree. Not one. The audience was undaunted by this though, as the fans in attendance rose to their feet more-and-more as the set rolled on. The strongest cuts here (“Believer,” “Train” and “Ooh La La”) all had a sultry combination of lyrical, romantic whimsy and a driving, dance-ridden crescendo musically. The presentation though, almost felt as if lost in a time warp. This wasn’t the sound of dance and electronic music today, more a regressive look back at the brightest parts of yesteryear. Nevertheless, the monstrous crowd happily rejoiced in the backwards-looking decadence. In the end, that’s what’s most important. Goldfrapp played up the end of their music that delivers satisfaction, even if they did not play to their artistic strengths.