Photo: Jen Maler

Thievery Corporation Fires Up San Francisco for the Musical Resistance

Blending a dazzling array of musical influences and directions for more than two decades now, Thievery Corporation have come to represent one of the 21st century's boldest bands in both genre-blending style and lyrical impact.

The Halloween season is in full effect on this crisp Sunday evening in San Francisco that precedes All Hallows Eve by two days. With the traditional holiday falling on a Tuesday, music fans are out for as much costumed fun as they can get as evidenced by the costumed revelers here at the Masonic in the Nob Hill area. Thievery Corporation is in town, and the Bay Area “thieves” as the band’s fans are known are ready to let it all hang out with one of the few bands in the music industry that isn’t shy on telling listeners the truth about what’s going on in the world.

Blending a dazzling array of musical influences and directions for more than two decades now, Thievery Corporation have come to represent one of the 21st century’s boldest bands in both genre-blending style and lyrical impact. Led by dynamic DJ duo Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, the group’s latest album Temple of I and I is another winner that focuses more on the reggae stylings of Jamaica where it was recorded. Hence the evening’s set list leans more in that direction too, as well as with lyrics for social justice the likes of which Jamaica has long been known for.

The show opens with the inviting ambiance of “Marching the Hate Machines (Into the Sun)” from 2005’s masterpiece album The Cosmic Game, a track which featured a collaboration with The Flaming Lips in the studio. There are few artists in modern music who would come up with such song titles, but that’s just how Thievery Corporation rolls. Nor are there many artists who craft songs about “The Forgotten People”, as Thievery does here with a trancey polyrhythmic groove backed by some tasty sitar from guitarist Rob Myers on a tune from 2008’s Radio Resistance that featured Subcommander Marcos of Mexico’s heroic Zapatista rebellion on the cover. The instrumental jam brings the audience into one of many collective grooves throughout the night, one of Thievery Corporation’s specialties.

Thievery Corporation always tours with a collective of diverse vocalists that could easily double for a diplomatic delegation from the United Nations and they’re joined here by Racquel Jones, who duplicates her spitfire lead vocal on the fierce “Letter to the Editor” from the new album. The title track from 2011’s “Culture of Fear” is another such gem, with the ever-woke Mr. Lif fronting the group on the groovy hip-hop tune about standing up to the fear-based paradigm of the powers that be. Lif and the group really crank up the energy here and then keep it flowing into the up-tempo jam of “Illumination”. Lif soon stars again on the new “Ghetto Matrix” with another revealing hip-hop takedown of the “complex plan that keeps us confined, it’s on you, it’s your mind.”

Longtime band sirens Natalia Clavier and LouLou Ghelichkani make their mark throughout the set, lending their alluring vocals to songs including “Le Monde”, “Until the Morning”, “Love Has No Heart” and the majestic new “Time and Space” that finds LouLou enchanting the audience like a spirit from another dimension. “Weapons of Distraction” is another enlightening new track, with a reggae-backed message about the way the modern media matrix distorts the news and overwhelms viewers into looking away instead of digging into the real issues.

As the set steams toward a finish, Thievery Corporation puts it all together on the incendiary “Fight to Survive” with Mr. Lif throwing down empowering rhymes over one of the band’s most infectious grooves. Ace drummer Jeff Franca lays down a tight beat, while charismatic bassist Ashish Vyas pumps up the low end as Garza triggers trippy synths to unite the audience in a collective tribal trance dance for humanity against the corrupt powers that be. Why the dynamic and ever-enlightening Mr. Lif isn’t a huge star in his own right remains one of the 21st century’s great sonic injustices, but the mainstream’s loss is Thievery Corporation’s continuing gain here.

The encore sequence finds the band at their typically crafty game, sandwiching the thought-provoking downtempo groove of “Richest Man in Babylon” in between LouLou’s soaring and soul-soothing “Sweet Tides” and Natalia’s spine-tingling and uplifting “Lebanese Blonde” to close the show in a transcendent fashion. Many music fans will say they prefer politics to be left out of music, but speaking out against society’s injustices is part of Thievery Corporation’s DNA. They’ve mastered the art of mixing the bitter messages in with plenty of musical sugar, co-writing the book for how to help people get their groove on and give them something to think about at the same time. With the world rapidly spinning toward hell in a bucket due to the corrupt greedmongers that Thievery has been trying to shine a light on for over two decades, more bands doing the same just might be the key to awakening the masses in time to save the planet.