Live: Lightning-Proof Soca King Machel Montano

machel.jpgAlso, he can apparently fly

When I was 17, my friend Nat and I spent two weeks in London, and we went to one day of the 2007 Reading Festival. That night's headliners were the Manic Street Preachers, a band I'd heard of but never heard, and it was sort of profoundly disconcerting to stand in a field with tens of thousands of people, all of whom were singing along at full-volume to these big puffed-up rock anthems that I'd never heard. Last night, I experienced a similar kind of amazed disconnect at the free Machel Montano show at Brooklyn's Wingate Field. Montano might be the world's biggest soca star, but that doesn't necessarily mean much when you don't know anything about soca, which I sure don't. So here's what I learned last night: a whole lot of people love soca. Wingate Field is in Flatbush, and it's a pretty massive venue, a high-school football field with enough room for something like 15,000 people. For 25 years now, it's played host to a free concert serious honoring Martin Luther King. Seventeen years ago, Curtis Mayfield was doing a show there when a lighting rig fell on him, paralyzing him from the neck down. Mayfield's accident took place during a freak thunderstorm, and as Montano took the stage to a completely packed field, lightning was flickering not too far off in the distance. A few songs in, Montano paused the show to say that the show would have to end early if the storm got too close, but then he added that he wasn't worried: "When I see lightning, I think God is taking pictures of me." (He followed this, inevitably, by smiling and striking a pose in the lightning's direction.) The storm never came, and I wouldn't be surprised if the collective willpower of the assembled thousands was enough to hold it off. From the moment Montano stepped onstage, the entire crowd was dumbing the fuck out: pogoing in place, twirling Caribbean island flags over their heads, screaming along with Montano's anthemic choruses. Virtually every song Montano sang last night had an anthemic chorus. In fact, it often had nothing but an anthemic chorus; more often than not, he didn't even bother with the verses, using that time to exhort the crowd to even higher levels of frenzy. Before last night, I might not have recognized Montano if I'd tripped over him, but he's an absolute superstar.

He's also a hell of a performer. I left the show around midnight, after he'd been onstage for well over an hour, and he never stopped moving the whole time. He strung the crowd along expertly, building his set into peaks and valleys: introducing soca colleagues I'd never heard of to massive cheers, leading massive singalongs, constantly shouting out every Caribbean nation. Not all of his dancing is awe-inspiring (a lot of the time, he was either pogoing and twirling his own flag or spasmodically humping the air), but every once in a while, he'd pull out a huge flying split out of nowhere. He's an enormously genial presence, never anything less than a joy to watch. The music was, if anything, secondary to the sheer spectacle of Montano himself. To my untrained ear, it got samey quickly, barely ever varying from the exceedingly simple template of sticky pop melodies, often played on cheesed-out rave-synths, over jittery mile-a-minute percussion. Even when Montano slowed the show down for a couple of treacly piano-ballads, the itchy bongos didn't stop. But even as ear-fatigue set in, I didn't stop having fun. Montano will do anything to keep the crowd going nuts: covering Maxi Priest's Cat Stevens cover, interpolating "Time After Time" and tossing in a smooth-jazz saxophone solo, propping one leg way up on the stage's scaffolding so he could more vigorously hump the air. By the time I left, he was goofily miming along with the old Outer Limits introduction. He's totally, utterly unafraid to look completely ridiculous if it'll keep a crowd entertained, and that's a great quality for a performer to have.

Voice review: Baz Dreisinger on Machel Montano's The Book of Angels

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The trad-reggae band Morgan Heritage played before Montano, and they also got huge reactions despite possessing virtually none of the headliner's shamelessness. A few years ago, I saw the band playing a Warped Tour sidestage to a tiny and apathetic crowd. Their frothing righteousness didn't go over there at all, but it's amazing what kind of difference an appreciative crowd makes. At the start of the set, the sounded tiny and far-away, mostly because of a sound-system ill-suited to their heavy bass, but they seemed to get louder as they warmed up. "Headline Fi Frontpage," their world-going-to-hell song, got a big reaction, especially the queasy line about "preacherman-a sex the young boy." A few minutes later, they invoked reggae's heroes: "Do you love Luciano?" Big cheer. "Do you love Sizzla Kalonji?" Big cheer. "Do you love Buju Banton?" Big cheer. "Do you love Shaggy?" Somewhat confused and anemic cheer. It made sense a few minutes later, when they brought Shaggy out to the stage, a real WTF moment made even more WTF when the crowd decided that it really did love Shaggy after all, giving him a total hero's welcome. The biggest cheer of Morgan Heritage's set, though, came when Una Morgan announced that Jah Cure had been released from prison the previous day, launching into "Longing For." Morgan Heritage might've spent so much time invoking and introducing other musicians because their own one-drop chug was so unremarkable, long on extended vamps and watery solos. But I liked their set anyway; chalk it up to a huge and appreciative crowd.

Before Morgan Heritage's set, the show had had something of a county-fair vibe. For a huge free show open to the public, the venue is admirably well-run; its huge line moves quickly, and the Islamic security detail was thorough but efficient in checking everyone. Still, the waits between bands were interminable. And instead of pumped-in music, we got Brooklyn borough president and local celebrity Marty Markowitz, who frantically tried to fill time, introducing New York 1 on-air personalities and Applebee's spokespeople and rattling off trivia about the concert series (I didn't hear him mention Curtis Mayfield, but maybe I just wasn't paying enough attention). All that talking got boring fast. One kid behind me: "Damn, this what you get for coming to a free concert." Even though he'd been advertised as the night's headliner, the 72-year-old calypso legend Mighty Sparrow opened the show, which made sense considering that precious few would've stuck around to hear him after Montano. Sparrow might not look his age, but that didn't make his cruise-ship calypso any more interesting. J. Edward Keyes made a point to tell me that Sparrow's older records had been way more intense. But Keyes left after a couple of songs, saying that Sparrow's set was crushing his soul. This is probably a horrible thing to say, but the one lingering impression I have of Sparrow's set is that he reminds me of the crab from The Little Mermaid.

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