Willie Reviews Mdou Moctar & Invisible Boy @ The Cedar Cultural Center, 4/6

Willie Reviews Mdou Moctar & Invisible Boy @ The Cedar Cultural Center, 4/6

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Minneapolis got a special visitor on Saturday night, when legendary Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar dropped by all the way from Niger. What exactly goes down at a Tuareg show in the Twin Cities? That’s what RPM’s own Willie found out when we sent him to get the skinny on what happens when the Sahara meets the Tundra.

Before Mdou Moctar’s set began on Saturday night, he told the crowd at the Cedar Cultural Center he felt like he was home. For Moctar, the star and co-writer of Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, a loose adaptation of Prince’s Purple Rain that takes place in the Sahara, I imagine it’s always surreal coming to Minneapolis. Moctar is a Tuareg guitarist from Niger who sings in Tamasheq, but he has been an international phenomenon for over a decade. Needless to say, Moctar and his band took advantage of the Minneapolis connection and leaned into it. With the stage flooded in purple light, purple boxes propping up two amps labeled with purple duct tape, and a purple-tinged Stratocaster in hand, Moctar blazed through an hour-long set and took the crowd with him.

A very purple stage.

 

Of course, you can’t invite comparisons to anything Prince-related without an incredible amount of confidence to back it up, and Moctar has it in spades. He lives in the world of the guitar solo, racing ahead with his band and letting the audience catch up. Though lots of his playing is, in fact, composed melody that sounds freeform like a solo, plenty is also magnificent soloing. He plays left-handed, and his two-finger fingerpicking style means there’s constant motion in the left hand. With his right hand, he glides up and down the pentatonic scale, rarely lingering on a note (but when he does, the crowd sure does holler!).

Though Moctar rightly gets the lion’s share of the attention, the backing band is an undeniable asset. It’s a four-piece band: Souleymane Ibrahim on drums, Mikey Coltun on bass, Ahmoudou Madassane on rhythm guitar, and Moctar’s lead. They work as a rhythm unit, setting down a groove for each section of each song. They have a fearless collective sence of tempo and pace. There was never a danger of losing control. Moctar and his bandmates read the crowd and took a lot of joy in reacting to the feel of the room. Following the arc of many of the songs, the show itself started mid-tempo. Every few minutes, either Moctar or Ibrahim signaled a shift and the band ratcheted it up–from a simple groove to galloping triplets, and from swaying music to bouncing music. Moctar started out relatively stationary, with everything but his flying hands unmoving. His vocals are always serene, but he sketched out a second melody with the guitar. This is, for me, the first pleasure of his music. A steady pulse that’s endlessly grounded in interlocking instrumentals. It’s the type of music that makes you lose track of time, and it had the power to convince much of the audience to start moving.

 

Mdou soloing.

 

The room got warmer, and soon, Moctar was smiling and rocking. He exchanged glances with his bandmates, then, stepping away from the mic, he gave a few claps and looked deep into the audience. With that, the band accelerated and Moctar suddenly pulled out a whole catalog of righteous front man moves. He duck-walked, he held the guitar out in front of him, he rested the guitar on a knee, he kicked and stomped, and much, much more. All the while, he sped up, soloing at a blistering pace and slapping his pinky in endless pull-offs. Those who hadn’t yet started moving began to move, and about halfway through the show, he had gotten what I thought was a timid crowd to scream. Whenever Ibrahim would suddenly switch to a regular 4/4 rhythm with a downbeat emphasis, Moctar would go full Jimi Hendrix. It was quite a pretty thing to see such daring rock and roll.

Of course there was an encore, and again the band started humbly. They waited and waited, then returned to that sweet spot. Moctar, on the edge of the stage, gave little smiles between phrases and teased another monstrous solo. At last, he stepped out into the crowd, dragging the cord behind him, and a circle formed. The lighting operator was quick to turn on the light overhead and Moctar basked in it. It was sweaty in there.

Invisible Boy opened up the show, with mechanical post-punk beats that were an apt musical tie-in. A project of Chris Bierden, bassist in Poliça, the group offered a more toned-down vision of those circular rhythms. Chris said they’ve been a lot of studio work, so look out for some music in the future! In between sets, the Douala Soul Collective from south Minneapolis spun some crazy good vinyl—French-language hits from Cameroon and beyond (including the famously international Funkytown!).

Mdou Moctar just released an album called Ilana: The Creator on March 29. So, if you don’t get the chance to see him live, the studio versions will do just fine. But if you do get a chance, go! He was born to be a front man, and he’s got that charismatic quality that often comes with great skill. I don’t doubt he’ll be back in Minneapolis sometime soon.

Mdou in the crowd.

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