Taha's new album, Bonjour, has divided the critics. Actually, to be honest, it has divided me from most (if not all) of the other critics. But more of the new album in the next post. This is all about the live event.
Rachid Taha live is a subject that, generally speaking, most people are in agreement on. Live he is in his element; it's just that pretty much every time this spiritual heir to Joe Strummer appears on a London stage it's in the hallowed halls of seated venues. You could argue that the trade off lies in the quality of the sound against the space to seriously get down to his luscious groove, and the presence of seats didn't seem to impede the dancing feet of the hundreds of beautiful women who can usually be found at this bad boy's concerts.
Unfortunately I missed the opening set from co-headliner Vieux Farka Touré and walked into the cavernous Royal Festival Hall one verse into Taha's opening number, Ila Liqa, taken from Bonjour. Now band wisdom usually advises opening a show with a crowd pleaser, a well known number, that gets the audience behind you from the off. Taha doesn't seem to need this on the evidence of my own eyes; as I walked into the hall it seemed that the entire venue was already on its feet with people cramming down in front of the stage. With a drop of the shoulder and a tip of the hat the band slipped into Shuf and the crowd went nuts.
As always at Rachid's gigs there's a weird cross-section of London; from stately looking mature Levantines to fabulous beauties dancing like professionals, to bohemian grannies to wild freakin' raver dudes, they are all represented. They would probably be at a Clash gig were they ever to have reformed. That said Rachid is a rock act and he ought to be at the Empire or Brixton Academy, he should be playing somewhere where the sweat drips down the walls and the sound distorts and speaker stacks wobble disconcertingly as a packed pit bounces dangerously. The fact that he can pretty much conjure up this experience in the polite Royal Festival Hall says something about the power of his performance.
Aided and abetted by long term band mates Hakim Hamadouche, Guillaume Rossel, Rachid Belgacem, and Yves Aouizerate with Didier Thery on bass Taha tore the place up. Having seen him whenever I can, whenever he's in London, and being accused of being a too forgiving a fan I can honestly say that Stephan Bertin is the best guitarist I've seen appearing with him. His wild lead playing, behind Belgacem and Rossel's solid percussive groove, reminded me of Material in early-80s New York. It was no surprise to see the young long hair up on the balcony throwing himself around in almost rock-acid house ecstasy as these kings of future punk said how it was to be.
Through Je t'aime Mon Amour into Bent Sahara into a blistering Barra Barra (Black Hawk Down indeed), take a breather for Ecoute-Moi Camarade and on to Ya Rayah the crowd soared and dipped and the ladies went woooooo. I did too. The love flowed. Over the years there has occasionally been an almost Shane MacGowan moment with Taha at times; was he so fucked up that he'd collapse, or just mumble incoherently, would he be able to perform at all? But these days he seems to be happy with the moment and whether he was refreshed or not he was completely in the moment, centre stage and dominating. Slipping between English, French and Arabic depending on his mood or excitement. By the time he brought Vieux Farka Touré back out for Rock the Casbah and a stunning closer Garab, where Farka Touré played blistering guitar over one of rock's tightest rhythm sections, you thought the roof was going to come off.
This isn't world music, this is, like his compatriot Manu Chao, the natural heir to the original punk rock movement when young musicians sought wider roots to the rock music they wanted to play. The purer world music fraternity often dismiss Rachid's version of Rock El Casbah as "turgid" but I think they're mistaken. If reports are correct - read here - then Taha may well have more right to play Casbah than he's given credit for. All I know is that every time he plays he delivers. I have seen many bands over the years but Rachid Taha is in an elite group of maybe four or five in that he continues to offer us a different view.
Thanks for keeping the flame alive.
(The poster of this got the date wrong but check the young guy on the balcony!)