Rob Simonds, the Cedar Cultural Center’s Executive Director, opened the second of Tony Allen’s two sets last night with this demand of the normally placid Minnesota audience. By the end of the night, most everybody in the house was doing some form of dancing, yet Allen and his 9-piece band more than made up for any lack of movement in the crowd.
Perhaps most famously labeled as “Fela Kuti’s drummer,” last night I really got a sense of just how much more Allen is. The style of Afrobeat he helped create with Fela was fully on display: the interlocking guitars, horn lines, and quickly-clipped clave pairs formed the bedrock of the night’s music. These songs were also infused much more with soul, jazz, and funk elements, including a wider-ranging harmonic palette and more intricate horn lines.
I was lucky enough to be close to really watch Allen’s drumming. It wasn’t like his hands were a blur, full of virtuosic pyrotechnics, ala Neal Peart. In fact, it’s the complete opposite: it almost seems like he’s not working while he’s playing. Polyrhythms and syncopations abounded, fills blended effortlessly into his time-keeping patterns (if one would even call them that), and isolating one element of his set (a hi-hat, kick, or snare) made it even more incomprehensible as to how those two hands and feet could lay down such a tight, infectious groove yet seem so disparate.
And then, of course, Allen sings on top of all this. His lyrics were few and far between, and most took on the character of proverbs, such as the song “Kindness” with its chorus of “Don’t take my kindness for weakness.” His raspy, growling baritone certainly reminded me of Fela, one example of how Fela’s presence is never that far away from his music. (He politely, yet directly declined when an audience member asked him to play Fela’s “Water Get No Enemy,” but later, his scruffy, trickerstery guitarist briefly quoted his “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood.”) Amp Fiddler, who played keyboard and keytar, took a turn singing lead on one song. This was the most explicitly political song, though it still came across as a lukewarm anti-war song, quoting both “War” and “A Love Supreme.” In the end, it was his incredible voice that was more powerful than any words he sang.
The group’s performance at the Cedar last night was last stop of their US tour, their tightness and musical camaraderie display on every song. It was Allen, though, who everybody paid to see. People of all different walks of life took this rare opportunity to see Allen: hippies, yuppies, world music fans, Afrobeat connoisseurs, hipsters, and more than a few diasporic Africans who now call Minnesota home filled the Cedar to capacity. Halfway through the first set, a father put his son on his shoulders so he could a better view, while a few feet away, a grandma danced liked no one was watching, a testament not only to Allen’s acclaim, but also the Cedar’s incredible development of a diverse audience base.
During the second song of the band’s encore, a reprise of “Kindness,” I saw Simonds boppin’ through the crowd with a starry-eyed grin on his face. I’m sure many people in the audience felt the same way, and it was an incredible end to another year of great music from the Walker.