19 July 2012 (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)
Someone did their homework when they put together this line up. DJ Jahstone laid down some tasty reggae mixes to warm up the crowd. Atomga kicked up the energy and got us dancing. After another DJ set, we were ready for See-I's explosive set.
DJ sets can be hit or miss, depending on the pairing. DJ Jahstone cemented the show as he tailored his sets to each act. After Atomga's sound check, he started out with some tasteful rootsy reggae jams. The crowd was pretty thin, but the rock steady grooves set the reggae mood and still meshed with Atomga's jazzy, Afrobeat vibe. As people filtered in, he kicked it up to get people ready for the band.
It was interesting to see the shift in his second set. Between Atomga and See-I, DJ Jahstone brought in electronic elements and a stronger dub feel, along with some dancehall
vocals. The modern sound was a great set up for See-I and the beat kept up the dance energy.
Compared to filling the stage at the Boulder Theatre opening for Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 (review), Atomga were packed tightly at Cervantes Other Side. That didn't seem to slow them down at all. Vocalist Devan Blake Jones has moved on, but their instrumental set was every bit as energetic and entertaining as before. Even without the vocals, their set featured the same fusion of Afrobeat jams, Latin rhythms, and mondo funk.
Like the classic jazz bands of the '40s, Atomga was a well-rehearsed unit. There was never a hesitation as they negotiated sudden transitions, punched through a perfectly harmonized horn line, or traded off leads. Their fluidity makes it all seem effortless. Watching carefully, I could catch the signals, but the glances and nods seemed more a reassurance than a necessity.
Rehearsal and talent alone, though, only carry a band so far. On stage, Atomga had the chemistry to transcend mere technical skill. They created true magic on stage and a party in the room. Whether it was trombonist Alekzandor Palesh's joyous dance moves and infectious grin or baritone sax player Leah Concialdi's eye contact with the audience, the band communicated their connection to their music and their gratitude that they were sharing it with us.
This feel-good aura didn't distract the crowd from the compelling rhythms, as they danced to the heavy jams and jazzed out Afrobeat grooves. My favorite song was the soul funk punch of Blood and Dirt. The percussion interplay was cool, Concialdi's solo was particularly amazing, and Casey Hrdlicka's wah-wah guitar was retro gold.
I also enjoyed the Take Five feel of Still Today. The organic flow of solos and the tricky polyrhythm beats created a balance of natural simplicity amidst complexity. The real surprise of Atomga's set was that they pulled off this intensity with a guest bass player and a guest percussionist.
Rob Myers fed a taste of guitar into his delay box as the band got started. He dropped to his knees and began playing with the echoed noise. He manipulated the sound into a rising psychedelic crescendo. It was the perfect rock and roll moment as the wailing tones hung in the air. Instead of driving into a rock jam, it all crashed down into a laid back reggae groove as the Steele brothers took the stage.
Arthur "Rootz" Steele and Archie "Zeebo" Steele came out in costumes that recalled Jamaica's history. Their coats and hats had a retro colonial look. But as they worked harder they eventually surrendered most of those ties and developed their full, unique sound. And just as Jamaica is a diverse place, See-I's music went well beyond reggae, although that backbone framed their sound. They flirted with rock, funk, and dub in addition to the reggae roots.
The Steele brothers also showed a versatile vocal style as they bounced from toasting to rapping or from soulful crooning to harder edged singing. Their stage dynamic had a lot of hip hop style in the way they traded off lyrics and used the full stage space. They moved from attitude-heavy power posing to charismatic intimacy. Zeebo would crouch at the edge of the stage to create a more personal moment, then thrust his hips before dropping back to dance with the groove.
One of my favorite songs was Soul Hit Man, a reggae soul masterpiece. Although the live version misses the horns from this version, Salem Steele's keyboards filled those holes. Ashish Vyas' heavy hitting bass drove the groove. The soul vibe dominated, but the loose flow let the song meander into other realms. During some of the dub sections, Myers threw in some dreamy guitar fills.
See-I's set was extremely well choreographed. The band stepped through the song transitions quickly and not even a broken guitar string could break the flow. Almost every song kicked off with Ashis Vyas' monster bass lines. Speaking of Ashish Vyas, the man is a dynamo. He stayed in constant motion, marching across the stage. Whether he was nailing a simple groove or laying down a more complex funk line, he was locked into the rhythm and radiating his musical connection.
Even though this was only one of several nights that See-I will be playing in the
area, the turnout was high and the packed club danced into the early morning. The band has quite the following here in Colorado, so I know I'll get the chance to see them again.
More photos on my Flickr.