OAKLAND — The famous dada artist Marcel Duchamp once wrote, “the only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges,” but Duchamp didn’t live long enough to see America give the world soul and hip-hop. Luckily, fans at the Fox Theater on Saturday learned firsthand that America has more to offer as New Orleans hip-hop poetry collective Tank and the Bangas and Colorado’s neo-soul outfit Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats played the first of two sold-out nights.
The capacity crowd began to roar as soon as the theater lights came down. Tank and the Bangas stepped onto the stage and began to vamp over a huge space-age horn riff, and the energy coming off the stage was infectious. When Tarriona “Tank” Ball emerged from the side of the stage, dancing and larger than life, every eye was on her as the band stopped on a dime so she could drop a verse.
After the first song, Tank got the crowd chanting “Girl get your money” in a tribute to Childish Gambino’s “This is America” before breaking into “Quick,” the song that won them NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest and catapulted them to nationwide acclaim last year. Tank, clad in a cotton shirt and shorts combo bounced around the stage as the band shifted nimbly between hard-hitting hip-hop and smooth jazz.
The band has added a guitarist and put him to good use as he punctuated the huge bass hits by conjuring squealing vowel sounds from his Fender Strat while at other times providing the sweet plucked notes for “Butterflies” or shredding solos during the band’s extended jams. The other standout was backup vocalist Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph, whose voice covered the crowd with goosebumps on more than one occasion.
The band brought it way down as Tank performed her story/slam-poem/song “Butterflies,” while Albert Allenback played soft notes on the flute that flowed over the audience like some kind of magic liquid. Eventually the band built the music to another crescendo and Allenback picked up a saxophone a wailed over the band’s final outro.
After a quick set change, during which large retro lights were positioned at the back of the stage, the Nathaniel Ratliff and the Night Sweats emerged and the venue filled with the strong smell of marijuana. The band jammed on the horn riff from their new album’s opening track, “Shoe Boot,” before Rateliff emerged, clad in dark denim, a black vest, and partially unbuttoned shirt, looking a little like a hirsute, tattooed, and slightly inflated Joe Cocker. Barrel-chested with lungs like great bellows, Rateliff’s powerful voice cut through the big band’s wall of sound like the jaws of life. When keyboardist Mark Shusterman and bassist Joseph Pope III joined him in harmony, the sound was both razor sharp and thunderous.
The band was clad in denim, and there was no shortage of cool hats: pork pie, bolero, cowboy and baseball. Rateliff lead the crowd in a rousing call and response like a revival minister during “Intro” and swaggered to the cool slink of “I Did It.” The lights behind the band flashed and flickered, the curtains’ color changing to fit the mood of each song.
After several up-tempo numbers, Rateliff brought it down, dedicating “Say It Loud” to “the kids in schools trying to change gun legislation.”
“I think they just want a safe place to learn,” he said.
Slowly the band built the energy again, running through a string of songs from its new album, Tearing at the Seams, including “Cooling Out” and “You Worry Me.”
A consummate showman, Rateliff tossed his guitar across the stage to his roadie at the end of several songs. For other songs, he’d pick up a tambourine and dance nimbly around the crowded stage, or drop to his knees before the enthusiastic crowd.
The Night Sweats served as the perfect backing band. The horn section provided everything from short blasts that punctuated the songs to long sprawling solos that were at times elegant and graceful while at others gritty and soulful.
Rateliff paid his respects to recently departed Aretha Franklin, dedicating his mournful “Babe I Know” to her and asking fans to be more understanding and compassionate in their daily lives.
Near the end of the set, the audience exploded at the a cappella opening to “S.O.B.,” the band’s breakout single, and then danced so hard the floor shook during the upbeat nostalgia of “Need Never Grow Old.”
The band left the stage to thunderous applause, only to return a minute later and play a three-song encore. Rateliff’s voice, the band’s energy, and the pull of the music kept fans dancing until the final notes rang out. The concert provided a good look at two very different groups, each mining the musical jewels of the American past and taking them to new places.
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