Thievery Corporation

If you are a band known for your ace studio production, your ability to craft hypnotizing grooves and sounds from sampled beats, and your DJ mixing skills, how do you translate that into a live setting? If you are the duo of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton — better known as Thievery Corporation — you augment your synthesizers, samplers, and turntables with a sitar player who doubles on guitar, two percussionists (in possession of congas, timbales, tom-toms, and djembes), a saxophonist, a trombonist, a bass player, four separate female vocalists, and three male vocalists. Nearing show time Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom — an old, expansive, spacious theatre — began filling with an array of concert goers: Young hippy chicks wearing flowery smocks over jeans, old bald heads with newsboy caps, dreadlocked Rastafarians, young boys in hooded sweatshirts and stocking cap, folks of all creed and color. What a refreshing change from indie rock’s sea of similar faces. With the crowd’s anticipation suitably piqued Garza and Hilton took their places high on the stage at their mixing station and launched their assault. Signaling a call to arms, the duo flipped the switch on the blaring air raid sirens that open “Sound the Alarm” from their current release Radio Retaliation. Although the hypnotizing and enchanting reggae dub beats were coming from Thievery’s mere mixing, noodling and twiddling, the electricity generated was palpable and highly charged. The audience couldn’t help but groove. The beats were visceral, tangible, a direct line to the spine. Adding to the haunting call was the dazzling light show — giant grids of dripping orange lights that bled into the pixilated image of the masked face of a Mexican Zapatista. Clearly the alarm was sounded. With the crowd still dizzy from the opening salvo, Thievery’s coterie of musicians took their places for the evening’s global dance party. From apocalyptic Jamaican soul and dub to the sultry slithering sounds of the sub-continent, Thievery issued in “Mandala” an instrumental track powered by the sitar of Rob Myers and funky bass licks from the kinetic and lively Ashish Vyas. Bolstering the groove were rapid-fire conga and tabla beats. Finally spicing the mix were blasts of trumpet and sax. This polyrhythmic stew segued sweetly to the clear crowd favorite “Lebanese Blonde”, via an even more tantalizing sitar riff. Sister Pat, Thievery’s long time songstress from Guyana, silkily shimmied to center stage as she crooned along to the down tempo beat. Supple, sinewy, and elastic, Thievery’s groove continued to inset itself into the hips, limbs, and minds of the audience. Thievery Corporation would continue their musical globe trekking revue as they trotted out each new singer: Persian beauty Lou Lou for the tranquil, dreamy French number, “La Femme Parallel”, the pixyish Argentinean songbird Natalia Clavier who crooned in a skin-tight black mini dress, and a Brazilian ballerina in a gauzy tu-tu and green and white striped thigh-high socks who strutted and sashayed while singing in Portuguese on the sexy Afro-Cuban dance track “Exilio”. Each new musical guest Thievery Corporation introduced helped raise the energy of the show. When longtime collaborators Zeebo and Roots pranced and skanked to center stage for the soul shakedown of “Liberation Front” the dance party reached full boil. The irresistible groove, that was part sweet southern soul, part Nassau tropical funk, and part Afro pop high-life, had the crowd moving and bobbing in unison. Even the band couldn’t escape the urgent beat. Zeebo and Roots skipped and hopped in a rub-a-dub dancehall style while bassist Ashish Vyas bounced and shimmied across the stage. Song after song, Thievery Corporation took the audience on an endless tour through their encyclopedic knowledge of multicultural grooves. With so many sounds, beats, rhythms, and samples at their disposal, Garza, Hilton and company couldn’t help but free their fans to experience a show, an extravaganza, a true spectacle they wouldn’t soon forget. With over two hours of music, there was bound to be a well-intentioned miss-step. Frank Orrall, a founding member of Poi Dog Pondering, and one of Thievery Corporation’s touring percussionists, had the unenviable task of singing “The Heart’s a Lonely Hunter”, a song normally sung by David Byrne. I can’t imagine anyone able to inhabit the unique, whimsical charm of Byrne’s vocal style. Despite Orrall’s best efforts the song sounded unfortunately out of place and character. Orrall also stepped to the microphone to voice Perry Farrell’s part on the bewitching Jamaican dub of “Revolution Solution”. To Orrall’s credit he brought as much honesty and passion as Farrell did in the recorded version. The problem is that neither one’s voice seemed the right fit for the rancor or the rage. The song begs for a voice more like Burning Spear’s, U-Roy’s, or Linton Kwesi Johnson. Thankfully for each of those two overarching shots, the rest of the night hit its target dead-on. Though naysayers may saddle Thievery Corporation as purveyors of chill-out cocktail culture or masters of mood music, the truth is that the band’s vibe seamlessly blends world music genres – the bossa nova and tropicalia of Brazil, Bollywood and bhangra beats, dreamy French pop, vintage Jamaican dub and ska — into a thoroughly memorable, unique, and timeless signature.

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