Joshua Light Show – NYU – September 14th and 16th, 2012


Terry & Gyan Riley
Skirball Center, New York University
Friday, September 14

Forro in the Dark, Debo Band
Skirball Center, New York University
Sunday, September 16

Better than: A Pink Floyd laser show.

A couple of what used to be called “world music” acts—local Brazilian expats Forro in the Dark and Boston Ethio-groovers the Debo Band—closed out the Joshua Light Show’s latest series of collaborations on Sunday. The four-night, five-show run also included Terry and Gyan Riley, Evelyn Glennie and Zeena Parkins, a John Zorn and Lou Reed noise fest, and MGMT dudes Ben Goldwasser and Andrew Vanwyngarden. Joshua White’s “liquid lights” were the common denominator here, as they were in the late ’60s, when Fillmore East impresario Bill Graham might pair Miles Davis and Laura Nyro on a bill, or book Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, a jazz big band, to open for Led Zeppelin. As the Fillmore’s resident lighting designer, White rendered them all equally psychedelic.

Which is not to say that White and his 12-artist crew homogenize sound through vision. On Friday, the JLS deployed a slower, darker palette of effects for the composer-keyboardist Terry Riley and his guitarist son Gyan. Alternating between grand piano and Korg synthesizer, Terry Riley belied his reputation as Minimalist godfather with a show that included vocal numbers sung in his gruff voice, a new Sun Ra-like slab of jagged electronic rock (“Alien Trash”), and a rare if abbreviated rendition of his seminal 1969 work “A Rainbow in Curved Air.”

The JLS lights, a glorious and shamelessly analog production in contradistinction to the digital marvels of contemporary rock and electronic lighting spectacles, perfectly reflected the Rileys casual, fuzzy-edged performance. Slowly dripping oils suggested emerging oceanic life forms, slitted sheets of laminated plastic splintered white light into galactic replicas, blue neon clouds blossomed overhead, and a Helen Frankenthaler blob of orange expressionism briefly suggested a gigantic grinning Halloween pumpkin.

Sunday night, however, was a dance party. JLS’s lights throbbed and blobbed to the deep zabumba drum beat throughout Forro in the Dark’s opening set of northeast Brazilian fusion. Guitarist Guilherme Monteiro added an acid-rock flair, tossing off dub effects as easily as he did a Chet Atkins-inspired country solo. Locked into a second-line rhythm at one point, Monteiro prowled the stage, occasionally gazing meditatively into the multicolored cosmic eyeballs looming overhead.

Drifting in on a droning note without missing a beat, the 11-piece Debo Band segued onstage as the Forro quintet gradually dispersed before finally exploding into Ayaléw Mesfin & Black Lion Band’s “Gedawo,” the first of a series of epic horn-driven grooves Debo would drop over the next hour. What appeared to be the all-seeing Eye of Agamotto gazed down upon them as they broke into the Mulatu Astatke hit “Lantchi Biyé,” which, as everywhere else, Debo has made its own with the addition of violins, accordion, and sousaphone. Founded by saxophonist-ethnomusicologist Danny Mekonnen and shoulder-shimmying, skip-dancing singer Bruck Tesfaye, Debo currently brings its own devoted following wherever it goes. “If you’re going to pop a balloon, do it on the beat, OK?” requested Mekonnen when the obligatory annoying orbs were released into the audience.

The Joshua Light Show did justice to Debo’s biggest jams, including Mahmoud Ahmed’s “Belomi Benna” and the raucous wedding tune “Asha Gèdawo,” with fractured kaleidoscopic patterns that zorped your skull. Just as Debo Band has updated and expanded the best parts of Ethiopia’s musical golden age without diluting its essence, the Joshua Light Show has contemporized the projections, reflections, and oil-and-water techniques developed at the Fillmore. The results are illuminating; let there be light indeed.

Overseen: “Roger Waters of ‘The Wall’ seen taking a seat as lights dimmed at Terry Riley show w/Joshua Light Show NYC,” tweeted @TV_Strategist.

Random notebook dump: Yesterday’s Fillmore East is today’s New York University.

Debo Band setlist:

Lantchi Biyé
Ney Ney Waleba
Not Just a Song
Belomi Benna
Musicawi Silt
Asha Gedawo