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Review: Ibibio Sound Machine – 08/10/19 – Riverside, Newcastle

17/10/2019

I like all three of London afro-funk band Ibibio Sound Machine’s albums, but I had the feeling that the proper way of experiencing their eclectic, genre-splicing music would be live, and I wasn’t wrong…

Riverside, under what tonight’s very decent support act Rina Mushonga calls ‘a lot of big-aaaass bridges’, is the perfect-sized venue for the band, big enough to make sure that the multilingual calls and responses are loud enough but small enough for the frenetic clatter onstage to bounce off the walls, to make the crowd feel as dense and pent-up as the band’s music.

They’re an eight-piece band, each of whom are excellent enough to gush about, but particular attention tonight goes to frantic trumpeter Scott Baylis, brilliant percussionist Anselmo Netto, who must have lost all sensation in his palms, and guitarist Alfred Kari Bannerman, playing perfect funk-guitar on a Les Paul while wearing a frankly massive hat. The band are extremely tight – telepathically tight, Mike Ashley’s wallet tight – and that’s before we get to exceptional vocalist Eno Williams, singing in Ibibio and English with power, electricity, charm and some more good clothing.

She gives language lessons for the chants, and explains lyrics of songs like the fantastic ‘Give Me A Reason’, possibly the highlight of the night, an angry and despairing song about the disappearance of schoolgirls in Nigeria that also happens to be euphoric and maddeningly catchy.

The songs are stuffed with genres and ideas – sometimes they sound like disco, sometimes like 80s pop, sometimes like a tribute to the brilliant 1970s West-African funk of ‘Analogue Africa’ compilations, sometimes like squelchy-synthed, laser gun-firing futurists. Ibibio Sound Machine don’t sound like they’re trying on different sounds for different songs, though – they always sound like themselves, the different songs being variations on one perfect sonic blueprint.

In the same kind of way that My Bloody Valentine, a band who sound nothing like Ibibio Sound Machine, veer into drum and bass or psychedelia or electro or whatever, nothing of themselves is lost in moving between genres.

When ‘the Machine’ play live as opposed to on record, not only can you see the virtuoso playing and feel the love of the crowd, but the song selection is also far more satisfying: tonight they play just the right selection of songs from all three of their records, wisely extending the songs that work best rather than cramming as many in as possible.

There’s their glorious debut single, ‘Let’s Dance’ (a supremely no-nonsense title), the warm afro-funk of ‘Power of 3’, a highlight from 2017’s Uyai, and the best songs from new album Doko Mien, including the brooding, slow-building ‘I Know That You’re Thinking About Me’ and the bracing slap in the face of opener ‘I Need You To Be Sweet Like Sugar (Nnge Nte Suka)’.

They sound like a crate-digging band that actually manage to keep the joy of the records they find, and while the albums are very good, this feels like how Ibibio Sound Machine are best experienced: playing live, playing their catchiest material, and playing to a room full of people who are enjoying it just as much as me. 

Words: Jack Blenkinsopp

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