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Unheard Of Nomo?

August 14, 2009
By

Nomo | Image by City Paper Digi-Cam

Maybe it was just because it was a Tuesday, or maybe because it wasn’t hyped enough, but all but about 40 people in Baltimore missed a killer set from Nomo, the Michigan-based Afrobeat sextet at the Ottobar. The vibe of the night was doubly odd because the two openers, Small Sur drummer-turned-songwriterAustin Stahl, and the gruff rock band Red Sammy, were both so incongruent with the headlining act, both in genre and energy level, that it made it seem as if Nomo just doesn’t know anyone in Baltimore, and no one in Baltimore knows them, and that’s a damn shame.

Stahl started the night—we arrived about 3 songs in, we’re told—with a set of quiet, almost painfully awkward songs that he sang alone on stage, accompanying himself with a very trebly electric mandolin. It wasn’t that the songs were bad—although Stahl’s delivery only had one mode, which was self-pitying—but rather that they felt too intimate for the setting. The guy was literally singing to an empty room, with the few early arrivals not lured upstairs by a 2-for-1 drinks deal scattered around the sides of the main dance floor area. It was the kind of thing where, if it were at a party, and Stahl was your friend, and he wanted to sing a new song he’d written, you’d probably tell everyone to pipe down and listen and when he was finished everyone would cheer him on no matter how the song sounded or what it was about. But when Stahl, who sort of looks like a character out of a comic book adaptation of The Big Bang Theory, sheepishly announced, “This is a song about fresh fruits and vegetables,” and then proceeded to sing a song full of poetic imagery about a garden in winter, the whole thing just felt terribly weird.

Red Sammy, whose 40-ish minute set followed, showed some promise as a live act, but the band needs to unclutter its sound. Adam Trice’s guttural growl cuts through, and a few lead guitar parts were really impressive, but when one of Trice’s side-men started adding squawking theremin leads to the songs, which are mostly hard driving country-rock numbers, it really mucked things up. A few slower ballads, one of which featured a musical saw, were haunting and gravelly and great, but they slipped by far too quickly.

Nomo, on the other hand, played a set of original tunes from its recently released concept album Invisible Cities that were so high-energy and confident that it was almost disorienting. The band played as if to 200 people, which, after a recently completed European tour, is probably what it’s used to.

Any six white longhairs from the University of Michigan trying to play Afrobeat, the fusion of West African tribal rhythms and James Brown-style funk that rose as an expression of political dissidence in 1970s Nigeria, will hit their fair share of pitfalls. They could easily wander into, say, the kitschy haze of jam-band territory, with long, wanking improvisations from amateur soloists and that watered-down feel of a band that has no qualms about bastardizing someone else’s art form for the sake of the party.

Nomo does neither. Nor, like the incredibly fun dance-fest shows of the Baltimore Afrobeat Society, does the band try to recreate bar-for-bar the songs of Fela Kuti, Afrobeat’s eccentric progenitor. Thankfully, Nomo also doesn’t try to sing. Instead, the band focuses on the severity and heavy psychedelic elements of the genre. Afrobeat is generally a blues rather than jazz-based music, and the harmonies between its horn parts lean heavily on wider intervals, like fifths and octaves, instead of the lighter, more breezy-sounding thirds and sixths that characterize soul’s vocal harmonies. Nomo understands this, and its horn parts are crafted accordingly.

But more immediately recognizable are the band’s edgier elements. Elliot Bergman, who also plays sax, tickles out droning, smoky patterns on a pair of Nord Lead synths, which at a basic level don’t sound much different from Fela’s Wurlitzer organ riffs, but which definitely add a distorted headiness to songs such as “Invisible Cities” and the bassy drone of “Brainwave.” Both Bergman, who adds still more spaciness to the mix by playing an electrified version of the West African kalimba thumb piano on tunes such as “My Dear”, and guitarist Erik Hall are talented multi-instrumentalists. Hall’s lithe hippie frame bobbed groovily as he picked out genuine-sounding high life soul riffs, and he seemed equally comfortable behind the drums. His coolest contribution, however, was a hand-held instrument called the Nu-Tones, which I couldn’t really see from where I stood, but added the same sort of tingling, fuzzed-out melodies as the kalimba.

None of that even gets to the horns. The horns, man, were amazing. Brooklyn’s Antibalas, another hipster Afrobeat band, falls short on its original tunes because its playing is just far too tight. That band plays with the sterile precision of commercial big-band jazz orchestra, and occasionally loses sight of the slack, sexy, pot-fueled looseness that was as much of a part of what made Fela’s music subversive as the politically charged lyrics. Nomo, on the other hand, leaves some wiggle room in its sound, but at the same time, its soloists are outstanding. Dan Bennett, in particular, blew out a few absolutely filthy passages on his baritone sax, an instrument so ungainly and difficult to play nimbly that it was hard to believe that the sounds he made came from the instrument in his hands. The language of his playing was more Coltrane than Tower of Power, with lots of partially completed phrases and riffs that would restart a few ticks lower on the scale, then catapult back up into the highest ends of the instrument’s range.

The crowd was not afraid of dancing but, oddly, it appeared to be made up mostly of young, well-dressed, hippie types, a few with dreadlocks. It was weird, then, to think that maybe the only people who know Nomo in this town are the Deadheads. And that’s probably not what the band is going for.

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