A festive weekend party vibe is in the air as Thievery Corporation return to the City by the Bay on Saturday, 9 September. It feels like the group is bookending the summer of 2023 after they helped launch the summer concert season as a main stage act on the first day of the Bottlerock Music Festival in Napa at the end of May. The calendar has passed Labor Day, and Thievery Corporation are back for their most intimate San Francisco show in recent memory.
Thievery Corporation have played larger venues in recent years, like the Fox Theater in Oakland, the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, and the Berkeley Greek Theater. But they’re taking it old school here at the Midway, a multi-room venue with a vibe somewhat akin to an electronic dance music rave party in the 1990s. Some attendees are recently back from the Burning Man Festival and looking at this as a decompression-type event, while others are just hyped to see Thievery Corporation in action again.
A full lineup of electronic acts starts as early as 3:00pm. However, the main buzz revolves around Austrian downtempo duo Kruder & Dorfmeister, with a legend as influential trendsetters in the 1990s trip-hop scene. The main hall is packed when the duo comes on at 8:15 for a 90-minute set. Peter Kruder and Richard Dorfmeister (K&D) spin a vibrant sound that clearly takes some attendees to a very high level. Some drum & bass jams with breakbeat action sound like they influenced bands like Sound Tribe Sector Nine, along with some trippy grooves that apparently influenced Thievery Corporation co-founders Rob Garza and Eric Hilton in their formative years as a creative entity.
The vibe goes to another level when Thievery Corporation hit the stage, as there’s just extra energy when a full band plays the parts in real time. “Mandala” from 2008’s Radio Retaliation album lights a fuse, with drummer Jeff Franca and bassist Dan Africano laying down a wicked groove while guitarist & sitarist Rob Meyers weaves some heady Eastern melodies. Putting out an album cover featuring the revolutionary Subcomandante Marcos from the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Mexico, was a bold thematic statement for those in the know, with the band displaying their ever-subversive vibe of speaking truth to global power.
The mystical “Lebanese Blonde” from 2000’s Mirror Conspiracy makes a statement of another kind, as the song is more often slotted toward the end of a set. But it helps to grow the vibe in a big way here as charismatic Spanish vocalist Laura Vall makes a dazzling debut in tonight’s show. The psychedelic dub of “Amerimacka” is a downtempo classic, with Puma Ptah from the US Virgin Islands coming on to sing as the band rolls out their standard United Nations-style tag team of eclectic vocalists.
Another singer comes on next as the alluring Shana Halligan from the City of Angels takes center stage for the classic “All That We Perceive” from 2003’s The Richest Man in Babylon, blending dub, trip-hop, and psychedelia that feels like it could be inspired by a John Carpenter soundtrack (the song would fit perfectly on a remake of Carpenter’s classic flick They Live.) Jamaican MC Racquel Jones follows, rocking the house with spitfire fury on her rebellious “Letter to the Editor” from 2017’s Temple of I & I. It’s a call-to-arms kind of song, and the music world can surely use more of these types of tunes as this war-torn world gone mad continues its descent into the climate change crisis.
A unique moment occurs when DJ and ringleader Rob Garza comes out front for a minute to testify to how influential and significant Kruder & Dorfmeister were for Thievery Corporation early in their career. Garza tells a short tale of how he and cohort Eric Hilton met K&D at a music conference in 1996, where they acted as Wayne & Garth in professing to be “not worthy” of the Austrian duo. He says they were pleasantly surprised when K&D returned the compliment to say they were fans of Thievery Corporation, too, pulling some of their vinyl out of their record crate. Garza adds that K&D then put their remix of Thievery’s “Shaolin Satellite” on their album (1996’s DJ-Kicks) to help introduce Thievery Corporation to a larger audience.
Thievery Corporation proceed to play the deep cut and groovy it is, with Franca, Africano, and percussionist Frank Orrall locking in for a tight groove with a timely vocal sample urging, “Get down everybody.” The hot jam finds the audience getting down on the good foot as the dance party’s energy level surges higher. And while Hilton has largely stopped touring with the band, it should be noted that he remains active as a creator. He’s got an impending new album, Corazón Kintsugi, due out at the end of September, in collaboration with part-time Thievery vocalist Natalia Clavier, who also directed the video for the dreamy first single “Amor Astral“.
The set keeps on soaring with the band rotating vocalists like an Olympic relay team, along with groovy psychedelic instrumentals like “Facing East”. Puma returns on the upbeat “Vampires”, throwing down a gauntlet as he tears into “the politicians and thieves” who “come like the wolf, but dress like the sheep”. Franca and Africano continue to star here as one of the best rhythm sections in the biz, powering Thievery Corporation’s subversive lyrics to a higher level in such a groovy context. The militant dub march of “Sound the Alarm” is another highlight, with Racquel Jones leading the charge as she sings, “Sound the alarm, order the attack, beat Babylon back!”
Laura Vall stars again as an enchanting chanteuse on the mystical “Satyam Shivam Sundaram” from 2005’s The Cosmic Game, with Meyers back on sitar for extra psychedelia that dazzles the senses. Shana Halligan follows with her enchantment as she seems like a siren of mythological lore on “Depth of my Soul” from 2014’s Saudade album. It’s like Rob Garza is a sonic Superman who has assembled a team of Super Friends for a mission to save the world with enlightening and mesmerizing songs that raise humanity’s vibration to a higher level.
“DC was very cosmopolitan, lots of places to see international live music and jazz,” says Garza at Thievery’s website, regarding the group’s origins in the nation’s capital. “We’d run into people from all over the world and invite them to play with us – so Thievery became an extension of that, both on our records and in our live performances.”
Thievery Corporation have put together such a deep and eclectic roster over the past quarter century that it has become no problem to swap out singers from time to time, depending on who’s available, to keep the party going without missing a beat. “Forgotten People” stands out as another great track from Radio Retaliation, an anthemic instrumental with a global trance dance vibe that seems to honor the Zapatistas as the surviving remnants of the ancient Maya. Garza taps his Super Friends roster again here, bringing on percussionist Alyssa DeCaro from his GARZA side project to help Thievery conjure deeper polyrhythms.
“Warning Shots” brings the set home with another inspiring call to arms as Puma, Racquel Jones, and local singer Ziek McCarter team up on the anthemic hip-hop style vocals over an infectious groove saturated in psychedelia. Shana Halligan dazzles again on a majestic “Sweet Tides” encore, leading the Midway on a blissful sonic journey to a higher dimension that never fails to transcend time and space. The classic downtempo groove of “The Richest Man in Babylon” brings the show to a close with a jazzy flair and one more subversive shot at the elitist greedheads who are jeopardizing society with their race to the bottom.
Revolutionary music like this makes it feel like some level of sanity prevails, though, a noble service from Thievery Corporation in this critical era for humanity as the world struggles to overcome the corporatocracy’s war on democracy and the planet. But as long as songs such as these fill the air, hope for the rebellion against the Empire will live on.