Rewind/Fast-Forward/Pause: Williamsburg Welcomes Antibalas Home
Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff
Antibalas are in the midst of a month-long residency at Brooklyn Bowl, and their current spell onstage in Williamsburg is a welcome return on a few levels. For one, the members of the Afrobeat collective — all eleven of them, plus occasionally more depending on the performance — have used their passports almost as much as their MetroCards in 2015, crossing hemispheres to play the Blue Note in Tokyo and roving through Canada during our neighbor to the north's most benevolent season. When they have been home in the Tri-State area, they've been tapped for high-profile tributes (like the star-studded evening dedicated to the music of Bill Withers that took place earlier this fall at Carnegie Hall) and higher-profile albums (like Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk"–championing Uptown Special, for which the renowned producer and friend of Daptone borrowed the Antibalas horn section), all of which has steered them temporarily away from headlining NYC gigs of their own. But Williamsburg, with its ever-changing musical landscape — you can thank the magnetic pull of gentrification for that — is surely the most appropriate destination for this kind of residency; after all, the band was born in one of its shabby, probably illegally zoned enclaves two decades ago. It is, in short, the perfect time for Antibalas to revisit the old stuff and to try out the new, and Williamsburg is the perfect place to do it — it's home, even if it doesn't look like it anymore.
"The last time we had a four-week run in New York was at Tonic," says Martín Perna, founding member of Antibalas and woodwind maestro. Tonic has long since closed its doors on Norfolk Street, just over the Williamsburg Bridge from where Antibalas will be performing on November 4, 11, and 18. "It was a long time ago — 2005. We did a four-week stand, and I remember — I turned thirty, and on my birthday, Tunde and Kip from TV on the Radio came. We did a couple of TV on the Radio songs Afrobeat-style, so it was a lovely show. That band and Antibalas were formed in the same apartment, along with the Dap-Kings. We were all roommates in this shitty loft in Williamsburg in the late Nineties. Tonic is no longer around — all of these great venues are gone — but it’s nice to see Brooklyn Bowl come up.... The irony of going back to Williamsburg is kind of bitter, though, because it used to be that everybody I knew lived there. Well, not everybody; everybody in the band. And now I don’t know anybody who lives there, save for one or two people that live in the last building that hasn’t been gut-renovated and turned over."
For Amayo, Antibalas's vivacious vocalist, the expanse of Brooklyn Bowl is a little different from the smaller confines of the clubs they cut their teeth in, but no matter — they're up for the challenge of making that block on Wythe move, and the vibe doesn't get lost in the rafters. "It feels like old times — it feels like rewind/fast-forward/pause all rolled up in one, just reminiscing on how it all began," he says of the residency. "It doesn’t feel the same, obviously, because the venue is not the type of venue that cultivates closeness, you know? It gets a little more challenging to let the music do its real work, you know, bouncing off all the walls and bouncing off of people to the bowling areas. But it’s still in Brooklyn, and that’s good."
The last Antibalas record, their self-titled full-length, was put out by Daptone Records in 2012, and this residency offers up the proper venue for the debut of new material. When Antibalas kicked off their stay at Brooklyn Bowl on October 28, the program culled from the earlier chapters of the band's discography; they plan on working toward their more current output as the month nears its end. This week and next will focus on the songs of 2004's Who Is This America? and 2007's Security, which Perna has dubbed the weirdest album they've made yet.
"The first week, we were doing early stuff," says Perna. "At least half the band was not around when we were playing those songs regularly. It’s a trip, because the youngest guys in the band were in middle school. They play [the old songs] with so much excitement. It’s cool they’ve been doing their homework; it comes full-circle. They’re really making [the songs] pop. Some of these songs, we haven’t played them in twelve years — people really like them, but we’re always trying to play new stuff, and it’s sometimes easy to forget the stuff you or the audience really like for the sake of trying to keep things fresh."
The last Wednesday of their Brooklyn Bowl run of dates, November 18, will feature a spate of new material, but throughout the month they'll revisit old Antibalas tracks in the spirit of updating songs they've shelved, forgotten, or simply haven't felt the need to play on recent tours. "A lot of the new material we never have enough time to actually flesh out, but some of the more finished versions of the new material that will hopefully be on our next record will be [performed] at these shows, too," says Amayo. For Perna, dusting off the older tracks and rehearsing with the crew is a reminder that Antibalas is the kind of act that seems to only get better with age.
"Playing the songs now, they have a lot more life, because we have a much deeper fluency and understanding of how the songs really need to move — especially when it’s a twelve-minute song with no chord changes," he says. "We’ve learned over time how to bring energy up and down, where everybody’s moving as if there’s one hand on the master volume. That invisible hand that guides us is a lot stronger. That’s what’s fun about how we play these songs."
Special guests — Saul Williams, Santigold, and Lee Fields and Will Holland — will join Antibalas onstage for respective performances, as Italian rapper Jovanotti did on October 28. Though the new stuff will be saved for the band's last night at Brooklyn Bowl, Perna is stoked for the fresh takes on old tunes the special guests will provide. He credits Antibalas's side-gigs as the house band at various Carnegie tribute nights — the music of Withers, Paul Simon, David Byrne, and the like — with forcing the group to reimagine their own songs in the same manner in which they've approached famous covers. They have the rare joy of covering their own stuff, basically. Before they make way for new Antibalas acts, they're reincarnating old ones and giving them new soul.
"We were pretty averse to doing covers, but it was really liberating to take the architecture of this really well-written song and do it our own style," Perna says. "When we started to look at that, so many of our favorite artists covered other people's material. I was listening to Patti LaBelle’s cover of '[Won't Get] Fooled Again' by the Who, and it’s incredible — it’s the sickest version of that song. The Who’s version is iconic and epic, but LaBelle’s version just crushes it. That’s what we’re hoping to do: Saul Williams, Jovanotti — it’s been done, but we just want to give them a whole new treatment and blow their minds."
Antibalas play November 4, 11, and 18 at Brooklyn Bowl. For ticket information, click here.
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