Old acquaintance not forgot: Toubab Krewe send off the Tiger

by Ryan Snyder

Toubab Krewe ends the Blind Tiger’s 20 year run on Walker Avenue. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

Death, taxes and construction delays. What was originally planned to be the baptismal performance at the new-and-improved Blind Tiger became the final (and fitting) salute to a long-standing music tradition: New Year’s Eve on Walker Avenue. While ‘boro NYE staple the Mantras took their party favors to the Pour House in Raleigh for a sold-out performance, around 320 horn-blowing revelers came to see Toubab Krewe’s first Triad show in over a year send 2010 out with a twang.

As their release Live at The Orange Peel would suggest, Toubab Krewe’s New Year’s Eve shows are customarily among their best sets. Guests musicians, ratcheted intensity and general unpredictability have been a staple, exemplified by the 2007-ending shows documented in that disc, along with their 2009 return to the same venue. While NYE concerts around the country mostly stuck to that convention — the Roots at the Brooklyn Bowl, Flaming Lips in Oklahoma City or Phish at Madison Square Garden all giving no-holdsbarred performances Friday night — Toubab Krewe’s last show of 2010 didn’t quite pack the wallop of their previous years on larger stages. But for the diligent listener, this particular show was as cerebral as any they’ve ever done, even if New Year’s celebrations rarely allow for the requisite brainpower to fully appreciate it at the time.

Starting with opener Jonathan Scales Fourchestra, subtlety was the most persistent theme of the evening. Scales led his jazzy quartet through an eight-song set that droned a bit through the overly-structured opener “Jam We Did” — a piece that sounded written solely to introduce novices to chromaticized percussion — but rewarded the patient with brilliant, nimble-fingered guitar work by Duane Simpson later in the set. For the unacquainted, Scales’ steel pan feels overpowering relative to the group’s finessed rhythm, but a close listen reveals measured tempo and meter shifts emanating from his sticks with which the band stays in lockstep. Sonically, it was at first hard to immediately detach it from clean-sounding Calypso music, but as Scales explained to the audience, they aren’t an island music band and they don’t play beach favorites, just before teasing “Margaritaville.”’­

The assumed collaboration between Scales and fellow Ashevillains Toubab Krewe never happened due to the smaller confines of the old Blind Tiger, even after the headliners rearranged their customary stage arrangement placing both percussionists at opposite sides. With an hour closer to midnight and the crowd an hour drunker, Toubab Krewe eased into their set with a pair of Malian classics — “Kaira” and “Djarabi” — most famously recorded by key influence Toumani Diabate in the ’80s. Both have been given a distinctly Appalachian polish, but still speak to their fine sense of traditionalism. Their easygoing pace persisted through Maliba before taking on a more anticipated lilt with the groovy psychedelic burn of “Area Code” and “51 Ft. Ladder.”

The surfy “Hang Tan” led them into their set break, along with the countdown to midnight and New Year’s toast. Unlike last year at the Orange Peel, the band wasn’t onstage to score the revelry with funk like Archie Bell & the Drells “Tighten Up,” but they did return to the stage with a rare vocal piece, their fiery reworking of the Appalachian fiddle tune “Cluck Old Hen.” Despite still surging from the long-awaited release of their more rocking sophomore album TK2, the band only brought out one track other than “Area Code” from it in “Konkoba,” where the show’s traditionalist themes and low-key vibe persevered.

True, it was a night where many came looking for the visceral, mind-blowing experience that precedes Toubab Krewe, and some may have found it. Others witnessed a much-loved spot being laid to rest gently.Percussionist Luke Quaranta himself acknowledged what an even greater honor it was to close out the venue’s home of more than 20 years versus opening the new one. When all is said and done, it’s more likely that most will recall the last show at a spot than the first show at another. Billy Joel at Shea, Pearl Jam at the Spectrum, Toubab Krewe on Walker Avenue.