all words: Logan Donaldson
all photos: Nick Balleza (with afterparty snaps coming a little later on)
Missed the Thievery Corporation concert Saturday night? You made the biggest oversight of your concert-going year, and if you grew up home schooled, it could be the second biggest mistake of your entire. life.
DC dignitaries Rob Garza and Eric Hilton and their rotating cast of singers brought their sumptuous, cosmopolitan grooves to Kastles Stadium, with Volta Bureau spinning house sets in between performances from reggae outfit The Arkives and afrobeat jam ensemble The Funk Ark.
The venue, if you’ve never been to Kastles, is a waterfront tennis stadium in the southwest surrounded by the Maine Avenue fish market, L’Enfant Plaza, and the Arena Stage. Unlike most tennis venues, this one is known for hosting energetic matches where cheerleaders pump up the crowd and arena anthems blare between points. A quadrangle of seats typically blocks off the court, but a stage about 100 feet wide was erected on one end, while food trucks and beer stands bookended the areas outside of the stadium.
With doors opening at 5, closing just after 10, and jubilant, kaleidoscopic textures of music swaying the crowd all evening, the venue took on the feel of a brief outdoor festival, like a mini Bonnaroo (except grilled cheeses cost eight dollars here). Arriving early invited a great opportunity to rest on the rails overlooking the harbor or to turn around and do some people watching while the opening act, The Arkives, pulsed their reggae sunsplash onto the crowd.
The Arkives bounced through a set of roots reggae, ska, and rocksteady standards, as well as a few original tunes, that, besides the classic reggae flourishes of choppy piano lines, toasting raps, and bossy horns, also featured some jazz flute. In my post-Anchorman life, I am unable to take the flute seriously in a non-classical music setting. Nevertheless the music matched the warm weather and moods of the crowd.
Volta Bureau, a project of DC DJs Will Eastman, Micah Vellian, and the moniker’d Outputmessage took the stage to spin some nu-disco house. The trio stood stage left in a line of laptops, bouncing and shuffling around as dance tracks bled seamlessly from one to the other. It wasn’t the most engaging set since it came across more like background music linking one live act to the next. But if house music is your thing, then tracks like “Alley Cat” were a treat.
The Funk Ark, a nine piece ensemble, took to stage next. They ran through a cornucopia of sounds, time signatures, and solos, oscillating mostly between rock and jazz with some afrobeat percussion to make it all entirely danceable. Most songs started out with phrases from an organ, guitar, or horn, all building on one another only to stop on a dime to shift into a completely new arrangement, then working their way back to the original motif. Occasionally they would drift into the territory of a blasé Sunday jazz brunch, but proggy shifts of music and instrumental virtuosity were enough to keep the audience engaged.
After one more clip of songs from Volta Bureau to bridge the change of sets, Thievery Corporation appeared. It didn’t take long for the sea of people to start dancing either on the packed-out court or in the stands flanking the stage. Throughout the night, Thievery’s vocal mainstays took turns singing: the dreadlocked See-I duo dressed in swanky saga boy attire, Sleepy Wonder in military fatigues, Natalia Clavier, LouLou, and a guest appearance from DC Go-go godfather Chuck Brown. Between Chuck’s appearance, the hordes of food truck fanatics, and the annual Thievery concert, someone was one Georgetown slandering or drunk Redskins discussion away from winning DC bingo.
Highlights from Thievery’s set were “Radio Retaliation,” “Coming From The Top,” and from the casual fan’s perspective, their well known cut “Lebanese Blonde.” Energy was highest on tracks like “Coming From The Top” because rhythms elevated from mid-tempo lounge tracks to hypnotic, groove-stuffed spells of audiosex. It was impossible to not boogie. I saw some of the best dancing of the night standing one hundred yards away from stage waiting in line for drinks.
Listening to Thievery Corporation’s albums is a sedate affair. It’s perfect mood music with a lazy but sultry edge to it. Live, their music spirals out into new dimensions of awesome. Its quality is so blunted, fluid, and smooth that it’s hard to isolate what makes it so damn good. Part of that has to do with how many disparate influences are working at once. At any point a track can be woven with reggae, triphop, Indian classical, bossa nova, acid jazz, and throbbing club music. Closing your eyes inspires an imaginary trip across the globe of musical genres. The sitarist/guitarist, horn duo, dual drummers, and stage-roving bassist unleashed a safari of sound all night.
It’s as if Rob and Eric, who both DJ’d for most of the lengthy set, rolled up Embassy Row and smoked it before making and performing the music. (Speaking of which, plumes of smoke shot out copiously throughout their performance, as if we stood in a hyperactive tar pit of erupting bubbles that whiffed smoke, further enhancing the mini-Bonnaroo simile). Amidst all the sounds overlapping in harmony, there was bound to be some complexity that snagged your ear that could only be made sensible through permutations of ass shaking and arm waving. Or maybe you were one of those couples that took Thievery’s set as a chance to have sex through your clothes in public.
After a good two and a half hours, Thievery left stage but were beckoned back to perform an encore whose jewel was “The Richest Man In Babylon.” The bass thudded so hard that people had to look at the person to their left, then right, to make sure that this was, in fact, real life. All of the singers came out for one last song, and per tradition, Rob hopped on guitar, and a gaggle of girls strutted on stage to supplement the dance party. The parade on stage was a perfect reflection of everyone in the crowd lost in blissful hysterics, having religious experiences in the communion of song and dance.
After Thievery Corporation bid everyone a happy adieu, there was a feeling that if they decided to play for 3 more hours everyone would have been game to stay. Luckily when they did leave, the night was still young, and everyone was released into the wild in the highest of spirits. If you missed them, don’t worry, their shows are a DC annual tradition. Just remember, next time they’re in town, your presence is mandatory.