Thievery Corporation Steals the Night With Truth Bombs at Berkeley Greek
The energy in the Berkeley air crackles as the band and audience unite in a collective groove that makes it feel like the political revolution still has a chance.
“The People’s Republic of Berkeley” has long been known for its seminal counterculture scene and radical politics, at least since being a historic center of the free speech movement in the '60s. Berkeley may not be quite as radical these days, but it still remains near the cutting edge of progressive thought and action in America. It’s therefore fitting for one of the nation’s most thought provoking bands to roll through during this historically contentious presidential election season.
Thievery Corporation are on their 20-year anniversary tour and have played the Berkeley Greek several times in the past. The band packed the Greek for a memorable summer solstice fiesta in 2008, though there’s a few less people in the house tonight as the upper corners remain empty. This is probably more reflective of the Bay Area’s housing crisis than anything else, with fewer artistic types and music fans able to make ends meet with the region’s skyrocketing cost of living. But the passion for artists that tell it like it is remains and it’s still a strong showing for the Bay Area “thieves”, as band leader Rob Garza likes to call his fans.
Garza and his international crew of sonic rebels are generally inclined to let the music do the talking since their repertoire features many songs with subversive lyrics that dig deeper into society’s problems than most of their peers would ever dare. But Garza offered some further commentary in an April interview with Headcount.org where he drew attention to the incestuous overlap of the corporate media and the state, a growing plague on political journalism in America:
“Growing up we were taught media would be the watchdog for the people and watch the government, but when you see all the big money in media, they’re almost another branch of the government,” Garza said. “One thing when it comes to elections, sometimes you feel like coverage gets skewed toward certain candidates a little more. But the merging of government and big corporations is just very destructive to democracy as a whole.”
Musicians reliant on corporate support tend not to speak out in such a provocative manner, but Thievery Corporation have long been more of an underground phenomenon that rose to national prominence based on word of mouth and heavy touring rather than radio and label support. “We don’t want to necessarily tell you what to think… we want to make you think,” Garza explained to Headcount, citing the band’s “Culture of Fear” as such a song.
“There’s a lyric in one of our songs that says ‘I’m more afraid of a credit card than a terrorist squad.’ When you think of the day-to-day implications of a credit card and in a sense the slavery they have over our lives, as horrible and tragic as the [Paris] terrorist attacks are, things that affect us on a day to day basis can be more harmful in the society we live in.”
The title track from the band’s 2011 Culture of Fear LP is an early highlight on this cool night in Berkeley as the band lays down some deep truth amidst a funky hip-hop groove that gets the thieves going. Mr. Lif drops rhymes about the contrived war on terror before going on to wax about the terror of the IRS, INS and credit debt before imploring listeners, “Don’t succumb to this culture of fear.”
Thievery Corporation’s global squad of vocalists mixes hip-hoppers like Lif with enchanting sirens Loulou Ghelichkhani and Natalia Clavier to provide a diverse sonic landscape like few others. Loulou charms the Greek on “Firelight”, a mystical ambient groove that creates a dreamy buffer in between radical calls to action. “33rd Degree” is another revelation. It’s one of the band’s most subversively illuminating songs with a more ambient rap over a global beat warning of the shadow government that works through the federal reserve and the Masonic order’s secretive 33rd degree inner circle.
Bassist Ashish Vyas serves as the band’s hype man, pumping up the grooves all night with his dynamic bass lines as he rocks around the stage like a man possessed. He introduces the band’s cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” as a tune they’d worked up last year in tribute to the GD’s 50th anniversary and that he feels a special honor playing it here. “This is the place, the hippies baby, and we’re back!” The song has become a fan favorite for Thievery Corporation just as it was with the Grateful Dead and soars here with Loulou and Natalia dancing in tandem and adding harmony vocals over the reggae-tinged arrangement.
Just when it seems like the band might bypass any political commentary outside of the songs themselves, one of the hip hop crew tackles the national mood when he asks incredulously, “What the fuck is going on politically? Trump is running for president?!” The question serves as an intro to “Vampires”, a high energy screed against the International Monetary Fund’s predatory loan practices over a funky beat that rocks the Greek: “They'll gain the world but lose their souls, Don't believe politicians and thieves, They want our people on their bended knees, Pirates and robbers, liars and thieves, You come like the wolf but dressed like the sheep…”
In the end, the band’s ultimate message is best summarized with Mr. Lif’s anthemic “Unified Tribes” from 2012’s Occupy This Album anthology, an uplifting Afro-beat jam about coming together to create power for the people. “This music saves my life every day, unify!” Lif proclaims as an introduction, echoing the classic message from the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” in which Lou Reed sang of a girl whose life was saved by dancing to the sounds of a rock radio station. The energy in the Berkeley air crackles as the band and audience unite in a collective groove that makes it feel like the political revolution still has a chance as long as people are still gathering to dance together under such an inspiring sonic banner.
“Warning Shots” hammers the message home on another essential Thievery tune as the band uses their signature blend of funky grooves and psychedelic sonic landscaping to implore the thieves to fight the corporations : “We are eternal, made of the creator, Won't fall to the soul-less devastator…” The encore features the ladies with Loulou’s shimmering “Sweet Tides” and Natalia’s sublime “Lebanese Blonde”, both of which dazzle the senses. The band uses “The Richest Man in Babylon” to cap it off with one more groove-oriented blast of truth about the decline of freedom under “the wicked stench of exploitation”.
The corporate powers wrecking the planet may seem to have the upper hand as the existential threat of the climate crisis looms over humanity, with neither party in America’s bi-hegemonic political duopoly offering a platform to solve it. But here at the Greek it feels like the people still have the power to rise up and create change thanks to bold artists like Thievery Corporation, speaking truth to power in the artistic context of some groovy songs that can get fans pondering these concepts as they exit into the night.