One of my least favorite questions is, “Is guitar music dead?” Whenever the topic rears its head, I have to force myself not to roll my eyes. Older metalheads who believe that only shredding counts as guitar music might bring it up, or Gen Z producers who think declaring guitar a spent force makes them edgy. The guitar is doing just fine because modern musicians are doing what they’re supposed to with the instrument: evolving.
I’ve resisted the urge to feature guitar stuff too much in this column thus far. For one, it’s not like the guitar hasn’t received its fair share of attention over the decades. For another, I can’t trust myself to be succinct. I honestly spent 30 minutes in City Market, Onion River Co-op the other day talking to someone about Joni Mitchell‘s assorted tunings. So rest assured that it took a mammoth performance to get me to break my guitar embargo.
On Sunday night, I popped over to the Higher Ground Ballroom in South Burlington to check out Mdou Moctar. I was already a fan of the guitarist and songwriter from Agadez, Niger, and how he and his band magically weave traditional Tuareg music with psychedelic rock.
The story goes that Moctar saw some YouTube videos of Eddie Van Halen shredding and became inspired to master the axe, as well. His religious parents weren’t exactly feeling that, so Moctar made his own guitar with wood and bicycle cables. Through a network of mobile phone data cards — which his fans would trade, kinda like Deadheads trading tapes in the 1970s and ’80s — Moctar’s legend spread across West Africa, as did the film that he starred in and scored. A remake of the seminal 1984 Prince movie Purple Rain, the film is called Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, which translates to “Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It.”
Knowing all that didn’t prepare me for when Moctar and his band took the stage. As the quartet launched into a blazing rendition of “Chismiten” from 2021’s exceptional Afrique Victime, Moctar’s real power was inescapable. Drummer Souleymane Ibrahim absolutely pounded his kit, mixing the fury of Keith Moon with the elegance of Tony Allen while staying in lockstep groove with American-born bassist Mikey Coltun. Together with rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane, they laid out a vamp-like background of head-nodding, psychedelic-leaning rock and roll for Moctar’s virtuosity.
And what virtuosity it is! There’s nothing revolutionary about Moctar’s tone. The way he pushes the treble-heavy signal of that Strat with a self-taught fingerstyle technique and a blazing-fast fret hand creates such a searing sound, though — like a laser cutting through a dark room. He towered over the crowd on Sunday night, releasing piercing trills from his guitar as the band put down a ferocious groove. It was easily one of the louder shows I’ve ever seen at Higher Ground — up there with the famously intense Mars Volta show in 2008.
A week before the gig, I asked Coltun whether he’d had to adjust to playing in Moctar’s style when he joined the band. Multiple times a year, the bassist takes a 20-hour flight from his home in Brooklyn, plus a 28-hour bus ride, to reach Agadez to rehearse with Moctar.
“I actually grew up playing a lot of different styles,” the bassist told me. “So I was familiar with Tuareg music, for sure. But, honestly, we’re a rock band. So when I joined, it was more about reconnecting with rock music, which I hadn’t played since I was younger.”
Coltun, who also produces the group’s albums, noted the West African influences in Moctar’s songs but said it’s a lot more about four musicians getting into a room and making rock music.
“We don’t make sets,” he revealed. “It’s more about the moment. We just get a groove growing and build.”
As the band launched into “Afrique Victime,” a tune detailing the effects of French colonialism on Niger, Moctar let fire a barrage of scintillating peals of lead guitar, his eyes closed and his being immersed in the sound. I found my own eyes closing, as well, to filter out the purple and gold lights, the onstage tapestry of an eagle perched atop Africa itself, even Moctar’s hands, which were flying across his guitar.
After the song ended, I opened my eyes to the roars of the crowd and heard the telltale note of disbelief that often emerges when a musician has absolutely torn it up. I more than understood: We were all witnessing the evolution of an art form.
New Sounds,Who This?
Like so many musicians of late, Marco Benevento is getting ready to release an album recorded during the pandemic. The keyboard maestro spent much of the last year in his Woodstock, N.Y., studio crafting his latest LP, a session which has sent Benevento’s sound further into the realms of dance and pop than ever before, judging from advance singles “At the End or the Beginning” and “Winter Rose.”
“A friend of mine said I’m hitting my Quincy Jones period,” Benevento joked as we spoke on the phone. “I had these tunes with dancy, party vibes, repetitious grooves and falsetto vocals. They would start as eight-minute-long jams, but I’d trim the fat down into verses and choruses.”
Benevento has been a fixture in the jam band and experimental jazz scene since the late ’90s, particularly for his work with drummer Joe Russo. But he traces his pull toward dance music to his 2012 album, Tiger Face. That album featured Rubblebucket’s Kalmia Traver on vocals.
“I really liked those songs Kal sang,” he said. “It felt nice to hear things I’d written sung, so I thought, Fuck it. Why don’t I sing one?”
Singing wasn’t totally alien to Benevento. Growing up in New Jersey, he sang in plenty of bands. But once he moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music and became enamored with jazz and experimental music, the microphone disappeared.
The issue came to a head after he moved to Woodstock and built his studio, Fred Short Recording.
“There’s a whole community of musicians here,” Benevento said. “When you play together, they expect you to sing. Someone will be like, ‘Yo, Marco, you do the third harmony on the verse.’ At first, I was hesitant, but I realized that not only could I do it, but that I enjoyed it.”
With new, high-energy music full of dance grooves and catchy melodies, Benevento has hit the road. He’ll play the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge on Friday, April 8. It will be a return of sorts for him, as he has a long history with Burlington. In addition to touring with members of Phish in the past, Benevento held down a residency at Radio Bean in 2011, with a backing band that included Ween bassist Dave Dreiwitz.
“Man, we had some special nights in Burlington,” Benevento recalled. “I was just thinking about Mike Gordon the other day, actually. I haven’t caught up with him in a while. Maybe we can grab some Radio Bean breakfast … at 2 p.m., of course, because we’re musicians.”
Benevento hopes audiences continue to return to live shows. While he has sold out multiple-night runs in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., he noted that those shows were only at about 75 percent capacity. That’s a common experience for many musicians as the live music industry continues to feel the effects of the pandemic.
“The shows were incredible,” Benevento asserted. “But then you get backstage, and there’s some people there that aren’t supposed to be around, and you get nervous all over again.
“It’s a fucking drag,” he continued. “But, by and large, it’s been great. It’s honestly just amazing to see everyone dancing again and to get to play the new stuff.”