It’s been a psychedelic week. Any week can be psychedelic if you’re in the right frame of mind, it’s just that this one had music to match the surrealism of the dream state that’s been a daily reality for Americans since the election. Over the past several days, the former’s made it a lot easier to get through the latter.
Blick Bassy’s latest album is spare and pensive, offering no hint of how trippy and magnetic his live show would be. Introducing the Cameroonian singer in his New York debut at Lincoln Center Thursday evening, impresario Jordana Phokompe was clearly stoked to have finally booked him here after seeing him play at Womex a couple of years ago. It was worth the wait.
Colorfully and loosely garbed, red goggle shades perched on his head (he never put them on), he was a much more forceful and magnetic presence than his rather gentle and austere recent work would indicate. And the performance was infinitely more psychedelic. That Bassy would sing in his native vernacular – one of more than 250 languages, many of them endangered, spoken in his country – added to the enigmatic ambience. Yet emotional content, at least at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, were distinct, especially in a wrenching lament, and the long mini-suite of love songs that ended the show, his cat-ate-the-canary croon a dead giveaway.
For most of the set, he played banjo, fingerpicking it judiciously rather than frailing the strings bluegrass-style. Toward the end, he picked up what looked like a child’s model Telecaster and fingerpicked intricate, rippling, kora-like upper-register phrases in a spiny, open tuning
That his trio would have such unorthodox instrumentation, let alone that trombonist Johan Blanc and cellist Clément Petit would put on such a wall-bending display of extended technique, raised the surrealism factor several notches. Blanc was in charge of atmospherics with his low, looming phrases, often playing through a loop pedal or switching to a mini-keyboard and mixer. At one point, he ran Bassy’s vocals through the keyboard and built a harmony line with them as he sang. Of course, Blanc could simply have sung that harmony part himself, but the strange effect would have been lost
Petit is Bassy’s not-so-secret weapon. There were a few places where he held down somber, ambered sustained notes, or threw off a jaunty glissando or two, but mostly he plucked out basslines. As intricate as they grew, Petit never got too busy, often fattening the sound via an octave pedal which sent his cello down low into a rabbit hole where cellos usually can’t go. And he didn’t limit his lines to blues or rock. Like the bandleader, he spiraled through some kora-like phrases, and for a second even evoked the otherworldly bounce of Moroccan gnawa trance music.
Bassy is a diehard fan of plaintive, intense American blues iconoclast Skip James, so it was no surprise that the highlight of the show turned out to be after some amusing stage shtick, where Bassy looped a couple of bars from an old James record and then played variations that took the song straight back to its African roots.
The next show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center is this Thursday, July 20 at 7:30 PM with a relevance much closer to home: Brooklyn-based, Gil Scott-Heron influenced Brooklyn hip-hop duo Quincy Vidal. The show is free, so getting to the space on time is crucial.
After the Blick Bassy show, it was great fun to catch a whole set by cinematic psychedelic trio Los Crema Paraiso across the river. You can find out what happened in part two, here.