Well, I’m writing this as I sit on the side of a highway in my car, whose muffler assembly suddenly decided to drop off the undercarriage and start dragging on the road (while I was going 75 mph no less). Tow truck is 45 minutes a way — no better time to write a concert review! Ha!
Last night, I went to the Library of Congress to see Dhafer Youssef, a Tunisian-born vocalist and oud player whose latest album, Divine Shadows, is a very chilled-out work that combines jazz, “world music” and electronica. I like it well enough, and was drawn to this show also by the presence of Mark Helias on bass. Youssef was backed by the “Divine Shadows Quartet” (interestingly named because it is a totally different string quartet than the one that is actually recorded on Divine Shadows) as well as a Japanese percussionist who is a Berklee graduate.
The show was a very pleasant surprise in almost all respects. It was far, far more energetic than the studio album led me to expect. In fact, I would go so far to say that it flat-out rocked at times. The drummer/percussionist was a big part of this; although he was way too loud in the mix sometimes, he definitely lent the band a certain drive that is missing from the album. Youssef himself is a fabulous oud player, but his vocals stole the show — it was all wordless singing in the Islamic/Sufi tradition, powerful and clear with long, lonely notes. Of note, all the musicians were amplified because there was often some subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) electronic manipulation going on, but Youssef was frequently singing above all of them, his voice resonating so powerfully that he chose to sing without his microphone.
The energetic combination of jazz, rock and countless folk musics (I heard everything from the obvious Middle-Eastern influences to Eastern European bits and even plenty of Americana in one of the violinists’ solos) was intoxicating, and the crowd just absolutely ate it up. The parts where Youssef played his oud in interlocking parts with the string quartet were especially memorable (these are my favorite pieces on the album as well). Helias was given a couple solos that were pretty jaw-dropping, and fascinatingly enough, he did a really good job at making his solos fit the Middle-Eastern theme of the music rather than phoning in some straight-up jazzy parts that he is probably more comfortable with.
So this was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year for me (the winner of that title has to be the Atomic show back in February). I just wish I had a live recording of Youssef’s music, since it’s so drastically different from his studio work, at least judging from Divine Shadows.