By: Jim Welte
Balkan Beat Box :: 09.10.08 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA
A carnival unlike any other touched down at The Fillmore Wednesday of last week. But this wasn't the last remnants of the leftovers from Burning Man - there was nary a fire-twirler or stilt-walker in sight. Instead, there were belly dancers, would-be gypsies, crowing roosters and not one but two guys in deviled egg costumes, complete with red horns and tails.
Such is the scene drawn by Balkan Beat Box, the inimitable band of New York City-based, Israeli ex-pats whose block party jams range from Mediterranean dancehall and dubby klezmer to gypsy jazz and hypnotic electronica. Fronted by a dynamic, shirtless and mohawked former stand-up comic named Tomer Yosef, the band's music is all about the groove, and on this night, it incited sweaty bliss from a packed house.
Founded by former Gogol Bordello saxophonist Ori Kaplan and producer Tamir Muskat, Balkan Beat Box has released two albums in the past three years, but the recorded material simply serves as a jumping-off point for one of the most electric live shows around.
While Yosef served as frontman and cheerleader, Muskat was the man behind the curtain, playing drums and wielding a host of programmed beats and effects - a giant rhythm section unto himself. He often dropped remixed versions of the group's tracks that upped the tempo two-fold. The 90-minute set had a near-perfect arc, as the group mixed in the occasional mellow number but always seemed to follow it with a banger, as Yosef commanded the crowd to wave hands, stomp feet and shake asses. He also reminded them to let out a scream every time they heard the recorded rooster crow.
The group offered more than mere energy. In doing so, it escaped the tag of "world fusion," a Pro-Tools-meets-globalization hodgepodge that represents everything and nothing at the same time. The distinguishing factor for Balkan Beat Box is its cast of some of New York City's top musicians. Each member has other bands and production credits to his name, with Yosef having just released a solid solo debut of hip-hop and dancehall tracks.
Perhaps most impressive among that bunch is guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood, who recently formed The Sway Machinery, an eclectic supergroup with members of Arcade Fire, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Antibalas. Lockwood specializes in turning Jewish High Holiday prayers and cantorial songs into almost otherworldly contemporary tracks. In the middle of the set, he led the BBB crew through a strange tune that sounded like some sort of Israeli rockabilly.
|Balkan Beat Box by Miao Wang|
Lockwood and Muskat immediately dove into the opening lines to "Hermetico" from 2007's Nu Med. Over an insistent, handclap driven hip-hop beat and dubby bassline, Yosef rode the riddims with call-and-response vocals while Kaplan delivered spiraling solos. The two songs seemed light years apart, with only instrumental dollops as their common thread, but both were gripping.
The band and the crowd threatened to blow the roof off The Fillmore during "Shushan," a standout track on the group's self-titled 2005 album. Powered by incessant percussion, sinewy sax stabs and Yosef's urgent chants, the track showed off the band's uncanny ability to stay taut despite drawing on influences from all over the globe.
The set's most interesting selection was one of its last. Over a plodding beat, "Mexico City" featured Lockwood ripping slide guitar riffs while Yosef rapped lines like, "Fire/ can't stop looking for your next messiah/ Fooled by the ones who think they know your ultimate desire." Think Robert Johnson meeting Wu-Tang Clan at the crossroads.
The show ended the only way it could, with fans of all stripes streaming onto the stage to turn it into a polyethnic dance party as the band tore through a percussive groove.
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