After working for over 10 years in the non-profit world, one of the wisest pieces of advice I ever got about fundraising was "It's always a bit of a mess." Fortunately, I was also given a corollary to help me maintain my optimistic outlook: "It always works out in the end." These aphorisms were borne out on Thursday, January 31st, at Feed The Kids Art, the America Mambouka foundation's launch event at Santos Party House. The headliner was Sean Lennon and Greg Saunier's Mystical Weapons and, having missed their last show, I made it my business to get there. In the weeks leading up to the gig, I also became acquainted with Napoleon. Not the exiled French emperor, but rather an up-and-coming psych-rock/pop band - the best in NYC according to the readers of The Deli.
So that's how I ended up on Lafayette street below Canal, one frigid night after a quick bite of squid at Excellent Dumpling House. Here's the report as it happened...
My first time to Santos and, having been slightly spoiled by the tight ship of shows run by Bowery Presents, I'm slightly taken aback by the disorganization. Even after trying to be fashionably late, I'm still early. Whatever - after waiting in the cold for a bit, and then again at the box office, I'm finally shown downstairs. I open the door and...it's going to be a long night. The room is nearly empty, although the fog shot through with colored pin spots is creating more than enough atmosphere. One of the young DJ's featured in the America Mambouka calendar is spinning and the groove sounds good so I order a drink and settle in.
|The room was atmospheric but empty when I arrived.|
Sean Lennon is by the bar so I say hi. We met years ago, at Mike D.'s infamous scavenger hunt birthday - "The best ever!" declares Sean. I also mention the concert by his band, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, that I took my daughter to at South Street Seaport a couple of years ago. He is gratified to hear that we still talk about it. "Oh yeah, I felt good about that one," Sean says. When I ask if they might tour again, he says "So much work with that band. This (Mystical Weapons) is easy - we just improvise." Easy, maybe, but only after you've spent years becoming master musicians like Lennon and Saunier.
Eventually the amusingly named Sarah Tone In takes the stage and thanks us all for coming. True to her word, she and her DJ Alanna Raven play one track - serrated electronic beats over which she raps rhymes about a misfit. The line about not taking advice from Bobby Brown garners some knowing cheers before the song ends with a convincing a cappella.
Santos has invested well in their sound system and the Missy Elliott song that drops next sounds fantastic. Timbaland's vintage but still futuristic beats also feature in Alanna Raven's solid and funky DJ set.
Kenley Collins of Project Runway welcomes us in a slightly more formal fashion before inviting Sarah Tone In back for another song. She's a trouper, gamely rapping to the small crowd and not taking indifference for an answer. Truth be told, she has serious potential and its good to hear a female rapper immune to that Gucci Gucci Kesha Kitty Pryde bullshit.
The rhythms take a slightly different turn when the organization's founder Devi Mambouka herself spins for a few minutes, edging into DJ/Rupture territory, before Bijoux's turn on stage. Bijoux comes with a rock edge thanks to her pink hair, 4/4 beats and anthemic choruses. Fat Tony inserts a lighthearted rap and their genuine chemistry is obvious. They're one and done and Mambouka starts rocking her laptop again. She's the real deal and may very well be one of NYC's best kept secrets - at least to me.
I can't lie - the nonprofit professional in me cringes slightly when a live auction of original artwork is sprung on the sparse crowd. Fortunately, the auctioneer is unflappable and it's over quickly. Mambouka is next to the stage and she and her brother give a little background on the mission of the foundation, which is rooted in their experiences as artistically inclined immigrants from Gabon being raised in the Bronx. The funds raised tonight, and through their IndieGogo campaign, will provide after-school art and music programming to the kids at the West Harlem Residence. Good people, good intentions, and I'm sure they'll do good things.
Speeches done, the five members of Napoleon fill the small stage and launch into their set. Having only listened to their album once, I am immediately struck by how many songs I recognize. The bright, dense treble of Julien O'neill's Gibson SG meshes nicely with the sparser sound of Jared Walker's hollow body guitar while Julian Anderson's taut, spacious bass lines keep things moving. Harrison Keithline's drums are locked in tight and the sound is filled out by their new keyboard player who makes the biggest impression on the last song, a new one they plan to record next week.
I like Napoleon's approach, which is slightly reminiscent of The Walkmen with a healthy dose of new wave and a sprinkle of psychedelia, ska and reggae. They have several strong songs and, like The Walkmen, are not afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. I'm looking forward to more from them.
I step into the foyer to try to get a better cell signal and chat with the two Julian and Julien for a while - nice guys - and when I walk back in I am confronted by a topless woman on stage. She's singing in a monotone over programmed tracks reminiscent of Suicide. This must be No Bra. While her music is not entirely uninteresting, the complete lack of humor - or any kind of emotional modulation - quickly grows wearying.
She finally finishes and another young DJ takes over, laying down a devastating mix that includes noise rock, Led Zeppelin, Tame Impala, and The Slits. It's refreshing and brings me back to a night over 30 years ago on Laight street, just a few blocks from Santos, when I first danced to I Heard It Though The Grapevine.
Now, Sean Lennon may think Mystical Weapons is an easy gig, but it's anything but easy for his roadie who takes quite some time getting everything in order. Saunier's kit is basic, but Lennon's rig includes a couple of guitars, a bass, some keyboards and a mind-boggling array of effects pedals and other electronics. There is no ado - they get on stage and begin. Unlike their terrific album, there are few moments of space or contemplation: the music goes from fury to rage, the volume from loud to louder. Lennon is all over the stage, expertly making use of all that stuff, and the roadie proves to be an honorary third member as he remains completely available to Sean, whether to tune the bass, hand over a guitar, or keep the stage relatively clear so Lennon doesn't trip over something.
Minutes into the set, the slightly larger audience is mostly pressed up against the stage, soaking up the glorious noise. I go into tunnel vision, my focus becoming absolute on Lennon and Saunier's hairpin turns and juddering stops and starts. My hyper-attentiveness is completely rewarded, and while I acknowledge Martha Colburn's visuals on the small screen, the real movie is in my mind. Saunier is likely one of the best drummers in America right now and his ability to make everything groove is one of the elements that make Mystical Weapons work so well. He can pursue abstraction but is rarely far from finding the backbeat or funk in whatever Lennon throws at him - which is a lot. From motorik loops to screaming wah wah and feedback drenched solos, and from grungy bass lines to swooping electronic washes, Lennon is blissfully all over the map.
|Greg Saunier and that hard-working roadie|
They play continuously for about 40 minutes before doing an encore of sorts by switching positions, Sean at the drums, but we're all pretty much spent. Whether Mystical Weapons is an ongoing project or just another byway in Lennon's fascinating career, I'm very glad to have had a chance to witness one his and Saunier's brilliant excursions.
More power to Devi Mambouka and the America Mambouka foundation. Yes, it was a bit of a mess, but it all worked out in the end. As I hail a cab on nearly-deserted Canal Street, I'm thinking that when word gets out about the kind of party they throw, it's highly unlikely that there will be many more half-empty rooms in their future.