The Afrofuture of Rock


I moved to Manhattan in 1989 to see Earl Greyhound—but they didn’t exist yet. At the turn of the ’90s, in that aggressive-white- male space of hair metal deferring to Pacific Northwest cock-rock revivalists, the Brooklyn-based power trio could not have thrived. Their fearless Africana would’ve rendered them tokens on the scene at best. Contrary to a certain ridiculous, racist NYT article exploring the “blipster” phenomenon and mistakenly citing Earl Greyhound as evidence, black folks never left the rock field to whites. But regardless, this band is scorching that field now, roaring like a Rocket 88.

It’s still a long, dry season since the heyday of Sly, Betty Mabry Davis, and even David Bowie’s experiments with Ava & the Astronettes. Thus mine has been a long, strange trip in and out of Dixie since that autumn. Mercifully, now there’s a fresh, young band ringing down Valhalla.

And mighty mighty they are. When Earl Greyhound played at BAM Café last Saturday night, closing out the Black Rock Coalition’s annual February residency, I literally wept when drummer Ricc Sheridan swung out on his vintage Ludwig kit at the end of one of their best songs, “Yeah I Love You.” The trio’s back-to-back performances this past weekend—led by their Bowery Ballroom debut Friday—were electric must-sees, especially because of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Kamara Thomas. To witness sistagal loping on the bass in a blur of fringe and feathers is to want to sop her up with a biscuit. Whether at the rock show or crooning “Are You Ready for the Country” with her Honky Tonk Happy Hour compadres in Greenpoint, Thomas is consistently strong and open to experience, making Earl Greyhound a vital spark of evolution in what has now become rock’s moribund museum culture. Furthermore, she seems both too cosmic and too grounded to immolate herself on the altar of her art as too many of her forebears have done. And not only is Thomas beautiful, but she howls exquisitely. The wails on each night’s set closer, “S.O.S.,” will make you a true believer in Earl Greyhound, even if you mistakenly fault their adherence to rock ‘n’ roll tradition and ignore the ways they’re building on it.

Having been a longtime close observer of Gov’t Mule (the previous era’s greatest power trio), I know well the virtuosity and intricate balance such a format requires. Thomas and the group’s stalwart anchor—singer, guitarist, and primary composer Matt Whyte—have apprenticed under the Earl Greyhound banner for five years, culminating in their recent recording,
Soft Targets. Yet now, with the coming of new Mahavishnu-cherishing drummer Sheridan, they have achieved that complex balance and level of skill that’s now growing in stunning ways on the road.

At the Bowery Ballroom, the glorious execution of the trio’s epic songs bewildered an uneducated audience of pubeless wonders, making clear just how far rock culture has fallen from grace. Earl Greyhound eludes the sonic mire, though, with Whyte harnessing control and release powerfully enough that his bandmates never have to retreat from experimental, exultant liberation. Live, the band simultaneously gets fresh with roots and forecasts Afrofuture. Soft Targets, with its smart, ever shifting (even bilingual) songs of love and the flesh, takes essential seeds of Americana and reconstructs them as a new truth.

Although they draw jaded Williamsburg types, jammy twirlers, urban hillbillies, and the metro black-rock elite, Earl Greyhound cannot and refuse to be beholden to any one of these scenes. The highest compliment I can pay Sheridan is that he is such a human being that it’d be impossible to ever derive any shuck-and-jive from an Earl Greyhound gig. Of course, Whyte might buck-and-wing with his chiming ax—as a magnificent dervish during the sultry “Monkey,” for example—but trust, boogie chillun, that you won’t complain. And Thomas will be right there with him as morphing respondent, engaging in their wonderful shadow play of twangy harmonies while they strut and race through tempos. These three players enjoy an enviable rapport, and are mastering the perfect blue-note frequency to communicate.

Last year was all about death for me—including that of rock ‘n’ roll. Finally, there was pain music could not overcome. But just when I lost my hearing, Earl Greyhound and their fine record arrived as an ace boon. The passing of such titans as my mother and rock ‘n’ roll kings JB and Arthurly brought stark clarity, and so I cannot hustle y’all. If I say Earl Greyhound are the genuine article, I mean that shit, and their ascent makes this the perfect season to return to the City. Let them keep their tripartite Good Foot on the rock.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 20, 2007

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