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  • Courtesy of Luke Awtry Photography
  • Mdou Moctar

One of my least favorite questions is, “Is guitar music dead?” Every time the subject points the tip of their nose, I have to force myself not to roll my eyes. Older metalheads who believe only shredding matters because guitar music might talk about it, or Gen Z producers who think declaring the guitar a depleted force makes them nervous. The guitar is doing very well because modern musicians do what they are supposed to do with the instrument: evolve.

So far, I’ve resisted the urge to feature too much about the guitar in this column. For one thing, it’s not like the guitar hasn’t received its fair share of attention over the decades. On the other hand, I can’t trust myself to be succinct. Honestly, I spent 30 minutes at City Market, Onion River Co-op the other day talking to someone about Joni Mitchellit’s assorted chords. So rest assured, it took a gigantic performance to get me to break my guitar embargo.

Sunday night I went to the Higher Ground Ballroom in South Burlington to check Mdou Moctar. I was already a fan of the guitarist and songwriter from Agadez, Niger, and how he and his band magically weave traditional Tuareg music with psychedelic rock.

The story goes that Moctar saw YouTube videos of Eddie Van Halen shredding and also became inspired to master the axe. His religious parents didn’t exactly feel that way, so Moctar made his own guitar out of wood and bicycle cables. Through a network of cellphone data cards – which his fans traded, much like the Deadheads swap tapes of the 1970s and 80s – Moctar’s legend spread across East Africa. West, just like the movie he starred in and scored. A remake of the 1984 seminal Prince movie purple rainthe movie is called Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughaiwhich translates to “Rain the color of blue with a little red in it”.

Knowing all of this didn’t prepare me for when Moctar and his band took the stage. As the quartet embarked on a flamboyant rendition of 2021’s standout “Chismiten” Africa Victim, Moctar’s true power was inescapable. Drummer Souleymane Ibrahim absolutely pounded his kit, mixing the fury of Keith Moon with the elegance of Tony Allen while staying in rhythm with the American-born bassist Mikey Coltun. With rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassanethey featured a psychedelic-leaning rock and roll vamp background for Moctar’s virtuosity.

And what virtuosity! There is nothing revolutionary in Moctar’s tone. The way he pushes this Strat’s high-pitched signal with self-taught fingerstyle technique and a lightning-fast fret hand creates a sound so searing, like a laser cutting through a dark room. He towered over the crowd on Sunday night, unleashing piercing trills from his guitar as the band laid down a fierce groove. It was easily one of the loudest shows I’ve ever seen at Higher Ground – up there with the famously intense Mars-Volta show in 2008.

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Mdou Moctar - COURTESY OF LUKE AWTRY PHOTOGRAPHY

  • Courtesy of Luke Awtry Photography
  • Mdou Moctar

A week before the show, I asked Coltun if he had to adapt to Moctar’s style when he joined the band. Several times a year, the bassist takes a 20-hour flight from his home in Brooklyn, plus a 28-hour bus ride, to Agadez to rehearse with Moctar.

“I actually grew up playing a lot of different styles,” the bassist told me. “So, I knew Tuareg music, for sure. But honestly, we are a rock band. So when I came in, it was more to reconnect with rock music, which I hadn’t played since I was younger.”

Coltun, who also produces the band’s albums, noted the West African influences in Moctar’s songs, but said it was much more about four musicians walking into a room and making rock music.

“We don’t do sets,” he revealed. “It’s more in the moment. We just get a groove that grows and builds.”

As the band launched into “Afrique Victime,” a track detailing the effects of French colonialism on Niger, Moctar let out a barrage of scintillating solo guitar chimes, eyes closed and immersed in the sound. I found my own eyes closed, too, to filter out the purple and gold lights, the onstage tapestry of an eagle perched atop Africa itself, even Moctar’s hands, which flew over his guitar.

After the song ended, I opened my eyes to the roars of the crowd and heard the telltale note of disbelief that often emerges when a musician has absolutely torn it’s rising. I more than understood: we were all witnesses to the evolution of an art form.

New sounds, who is it?

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Marco Benevento - COURTESY

Like so many musicians today, Marco Benevento is about to release an album recorded during the pandemic. The keyboard maestro has spent much of the past year in his studio in Woodstock, NY, creating his latest LP, a session that has taken Benevento’s sound further than ever into the realms of dance and music. pop, judging by the advanced singles “At the End or the Beginning” and “Winter Rose”.

“A friend of mine said I hit my quincy jones period,” Benevento joked as we spoke on the phone. “I had these tunes with dance, party vibes, repetitive grooves, and falsetto vocals. They started out as eight-minute jams, but I cut the fat in verses and choruses. »

Benevento has been an integral part of the jam band and experimental jazz scene since the late 90s, especially for his work with drummer Joe Russo. But he traces his love of dance music back to his 2012 album, tiger face. This album featured Rubblebucket’s Kalmia Traver singing.

“I really liked those songs that Kal sang,” he said. “It was nice to hear things I had written sung, so I thought, Whore. Why don’t I sing one?

Singing was not totally foreign to Bénévent. Growing up in New Jersey, he sang in many bands. But once he moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music and fell in love with jazz and experimental music, the microphone disappeared.

The problem came to a head after he moved to Woodstock and built his studio, Fred Short Recording.

“There’s a whole community of musicians here,” Benevento said. “When you play together, they expect you to sing. Someone will say, ‘Yo, Marco, you’re doing the third harmony of the verse.’ At first I was hesitant, but I realized that not only could I do it, but I liked it.”

With energetic new music full of danceable beats and catchy melodies, Benevento hit the road. He will perform at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge on Friday, April 8. It will be something of a comeback for him, as he has a long history with Burlington. In addition to touring with members of Phishing in the past, Benevento held a residency at Radio Bean in 2011, with a backing band that included Ween bass player Dave Dreiwitz.

“Man, we had some special nights in Burlington,” Benevento recalled. “I was just thinking about mike gordon the other day, actually. I haven’t caught up to him in a while. Maybe we can have a Radio Bean breakfast…at 2 p.m., of course, because we’re musicians.”

Benevento hopes audiences will keep coming back to live shows. Although he sold out several nights in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., he noted that those shows were only at about 75% capacity. It’s a common experience for many musicians as the live music industry continues to feel the effects of the pandemic.

“The shows were amazing,” Benevento said. “But then you get backstage, and there are people there who aren’t supposed to be there, and you get nervous again.

“It’s a fucking chore,” he continued. “But overall it’s been great. It’s really amazing to see everyone dancing again and being able to play the new stuff.”