While Yeshe was to perform back in October, mbira player Chris Berry, frontman of world music group Panjea, opened this go-round. He played five jazzy songs on the Zimbabwean thumb piano, including "Leave It," a song so new "we're not supposed to be playing it here tonight." He was accompanied by a skilled drummer named Abdul (Sorry, I didn't catch the full name.), who was able to change time signatures with such ease that a wide grin would frequently erupt from his face. Berry could improve lyrically and vocally, but the electrified mbira is such a unique sound that it forgives his shortcomings. "I shoulda played guitar, but I played this thing," he admitted, giving us all a lesson in how to pronounce the name: "Mmm...beer. Ahh."
A little before 9:15, Xavier Rudd took the stage to chants of "Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!" Taking a seat behind a fortress of didgeridoos, chimes, and drums, he jumped right in with a 9-minute rendition of "Lioness Eye," the opening track from his latest release, Spirit Bird. Rudd is the epitome of the one-man band. With all available extremities playing his set-up of surrounding instruments, it appears as if he's a man strapped into a machine, forced to do its bidding. It is only when Rudd lifts his head back in splendor to sing to the heavens that you realize that the machine isn't controlling him; he's controlling it. He truly is a marvel to watch. Moving stage right to play some tunes on lap steel, he kept his limbs no less busy, stomping his gnarly left foot on a percussion box, controlling his guitar tone on pedals with his right, and blowing into a harmonica held around his neck in between spurts of vocals and didgeridoo.
Rudd didn't speak much in between songs until after he finished "Follow the Sun," the new album's single. "This seems like a gentle Monday in New York City. Can I share a story with you?" From a haze of quality-smelling marijuana, yelps of approval from the crowd. He explained that the didgeridoo is naturally hollowed out by termites, and is actually called a yidaki (Didgeridoo is just an onomatopoeia established by the English.), after the Aboriginal tribesman who discovered it. He continued, "It's the oldest instrument in the world. It's 60,000 years old or somewhere thereabouts. Not to the day, obviously." He told the story of how he went to the Arnhem Land, a section of Australia that the English were never able to fully conquer (despite setting up mines and consequently, bottle shops to introduce alcohol to a culture that had never experienced it. Cue whistles from a stupid drunk girl.), and was made an honorary member of the tribe by one of Yidaki's descendents. This descendent had a profound effect on Rudd, greatly shaping his playing style. Shortly after the man died, Xavier was performing "Messages" and the man's spirit emerged in its middle as a new song. Rudd has played the song the same way since, and last night was no exception.
He dedicated "Full Circle" to the Sea Shepherd organization, which had a table set up by the entrance. Someone in the crowd shouted, "Thanks for coming back, baby!" Raising his hand to the sky, Rudd replied, "No worries, baby." "Let Me Be" had the crowd dancing, and just as I was realizing how much Xavier's voice reminded me of Bob Marley's, he started the "woy yoy yoy" chant from "Buffalo Soldier." Unfortunately, he turned over the vocal duties to his roadie, so we never really got to hear him at full Bob potential, but I guess it was a pretty sweet reward for the guy who had to continually switch out yidakis all night.
During the encore break, the sounds of an amplified preacher began seeping out of the PA, signalling the start of "Prosper," which naturally led into "Bow Down," as it does on Spirit Bird. Rudd followed that with the album's title track, which culminated in the crowd softly singing along quite beautifully. It was a shining moment for the crowd, which had been too talkative at times during the set, and it was easily my favorite performance of the night. With boomerang held high over his head, Xavier ended the show with "A Poem," a call to action against global warming, which likely caused the very storm that tried to keep him away.
XAVIER RUDD – 12.03.12 – IRVING PLAZA (2 hours, 1 minute)
Lioness Eye / Fortune Teller / Solace / Come Let Go / Food in the Belly / The Reasons We Were Blessed / 3 Roads / White Moth (tease) > Follow the Sun / Messages / Better People / Full Circle / Let Me Be > Buffalo Soldier / Culture Bleeding
Prosper > Bow Down / Spirit Bird / A Poem