Antibalas and Sonny Knight & the Lakers
July 2nd, 2015
Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park
Chicago’s big free summer series to its residents is Downtown Sound, a concert series displaying all genres of popular music every Monday and Thursday in June and July in the heart of the city, at Jay Pritzker Pavilliion in Millennium Park. This summer’s draw included sincere singer/songwriters (Hayes Carl, Andrew Belle), ambitious composers (San Fermin, Active Child), punchy indie rockers (Matthew Sweet, London Souls), and world music explorers (Poi Dog Pondering, Sierre Leone All Stars). Last week’s combination of classic soul revue with Sonny Knight & the Lakers and the straight-up filthy Afrobeat funk of Antibalas was one of the best shows I’ve seen in Millennium Park: a giant dance party for all ages, races, and shapes in the city of Chicago.
Sonny Knight & the Lakers follow in a long-line of recent soul rediscoveries, taking old soul acts that never got their full shot, backing them with a young (often white) band, and injecting new life into their music for a new audience. Think Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, and Sharon Jones. The Lakers were dressed like the Beatlesmania Beatles in their gray suits and blackties, a group of sharp young musicians probably straight out of jazz school. Sonny Knight recorded his first single at age 17 as Sonny Knight and the Cymbols, and now at age 67, Sonny has a new lease on his music career, but stays as cool as a musician whose been around for 50 years. Sporting a white leisure suit, Sonny Knight keeps it more low-key, without the flamboyance of Bradley or full-on belting of Fields. Still, Knight & the Lakers are super fun live, from doing the “Caveman” to bringing a funky take of the Beatles “Daytripper”.
Antibalas are a 12-member Afrobeat collective from Brooklyn, and the band is appropriately as diverse as you may expect. I’ve heard fine things about Antibalas live, but what I heard certainly sold the band short. They aren’t just a rehash of classic Afrobeat music, but actually push the genre to dirty, distorted, and interesting new corners. The band has now been around 15 years and play like it, but they seem to find a new enthusiasm each night. Like Afrobeat itself, the whole night played like slightly-political party music.
Front man Duke Amayo, a British-born singer with Nigerian ancestry, certainly brings the energy with his bejeweled white suit and face-paint, with the rest of the band serving as the perfect backbone. However, it’s not a matter of the front man having all the fun, as the band members get around the stage, playfully intermingling with each other, and also getting the audience interacting.
The biggest highlight for me came with their take on “Crosseyed and Painless”, the Talking Heads live classic. Antibalas served as the house band in Brooklyn for a Talking Heads tribute in March, and I really don’t think there is a better band on Earth suited to play this role. There’s plenty of Talking Heads cover bands (like This Must Be The Band) playing fun tributes and re-enacting Stop Making Sense scene for scene, but I would pay much more to see Antibalas play through the Talking Heads catalog. The band also rocked a cover of the one-hit-wonder 80’s classic “Sombody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell – which famously had Michael Jackson singing the chorus – sung by percussionist Marcus Farrar, a song obviously more relevant today than Rockwell probably ever expected. Thanks Obama.
Other highlights included the defiant “Dirty Money” and closer “Gold Rush”, where the horn players literally went digging for gold all around the stage before delivering their grand melodic statement.
As fun as watching the band was watching the crowd itself, as people of all ages, races, shapes, and dance styles got up and moving. From fathers dancing with daughters, old couples mamboing up and down the aisles, to stoner hippies (in for the weekend for the big Grateful Dead reunion) shaking their fists and hula hoops up in the air. Outside the church, it’s rare to see such a diverse group of people get up, have fun, and celebrate together. For that, we have the city of Chicago to thank (for the free show of course), and Sonny Knight and Antibalas themselves. Good on you.
Can’t Miss: “Crosseyed and Painless”, “Dirty Money”, “Gold Rush”
Can’t Hit: none