REVIEW: Tinariwen at Stuart’s Opera House

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The Mali-based Tuareg-Berber band Tinariwen played to a sold-out crowd of 470 last night at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville.

The multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter Kishi Bashi opened the night with a set of his original music, somewhat in the vein of Andrew Bird.

Some may be familiar with Bashi through his work with Of Montreal, Jupiter One and Regina Spektor, though he proved himself more than capable of standing his own during last night's performance.

Heavy use of looper pedals allowed Bashi to record backing tracks on the fly and layer additional sections on top of each other, creating a lush sound using only his voice, violin and banjo.

Bashi thrives on nontraditional sounds to form his pieces. A typical song may be comprised of a looping beatbox track, a reversed looping violin track and a falsetto vocal, along with a bowed banjo for good measure.

After Bashi received a standing ovation, Tinariwen took the stage to thunderous applause. Dressed in full regalia of silken robes, veils and headscarves, the musicians' appearance may have come as a shock to those who were not previously familiar with the band.

Tinariwen is more of a collective of musicians than a dedicated band, and includes several non-touring members who contribute to recordings.

Because of this, the number of musicians on stage at a Tinariwen show can range from a few to upwards of 10 at a time. Thursday night’s performance featured a group somewhere near the middle, with six members on stage.

With the band clad in bright blues and oranges and retro-psychedelic electric guitars slung over their shoulders, a Tinariwen show is certainly a sight to see.

The sound of Tinariwen’s music is something that’s hard to describe to Western ears, if for no other reason than the unfamiliarity with the scales utilized. If one had to compare Tinariwen’s sound to a familiar Western song, "The End" by The Doors would come close.

At first, this unfamiliarity was made evident when the band encouraged everyone to clap along. Some people had a difficult time following the complex rhythms and reverted to clapping in 4/4, or "standard time."

However, the crowd quickly acclimated: After 30 minutes into the show, members of the audience left their seats and crowded the stage, dancing along to the music.

Vocal and guitar duties rotated among some band members, while the electric bass and phenomenal hand drumming proved to be a constant driving force throughout the show.

Although the band's electric and acoustic guitar playing is clearly based within the Tuareg-Berber tradition, the bass lines seemed to be lifted straight from a James Brown record. Absolutely funky and grooving, it's likely that the bass playing is what makes the group's music so accessible to a worldwide audience.

After about 90 minutes, Tinariwen set down their guitars and left the stage, bringing the Stuart's crowd to their feet. Clapping, shouting and stomping for more, the audience was quickly rewarded when a single band member returned and picked up an acoustic guitar.

After a few minutes of the solo performance, the other members trickled back onto the stage, picked up their instruments and jammed along. Following the tune, the lead vocalist addressed the ecstatic crowd:

"Is OK?"

Tinariwen performed two more songs as part of their encore, with the final tune featuring the drummer, who stood up with the drum between his legs, and drove the concert to a high-energy crescendoing finale.

The show was presented by Stuart's Opera House, Arts for Ohio, Ohio University African Studies and the Ohio University Performing Arts Series.