Vieux Farka Touré

Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson

The last couple of times I’ve driven out of Leeds after a gig, I’ve found myself negotiating the late night backstreets of West Yorkshire at the approach of the witching hour, in search of vaguely familiar signs pointing towards home. This is due to the M62 eastbound being closed as part of the Highways Department’s ‘dig up the road for congested traffic’ scheme, which always starts far too early in the evening if you ask me. Why they choose to give concert and theatre goers not even the slightest chance of vacating their town – let’s say by midnight as a reasonable hour – before getting their blue rimmed tin mugs out, I’ll never know. Tonight I planned ahead and worked out an early escape route just in case. Aside from this small irritation, I actually find Leeds rather pleasing by early evening, which is when I usually arrive in town, always giving myself plenty of time to pick up my ticket and find a quiet coffee bar to relax for half an hour before treating myself to some good music. There’s something slightly cosmopolitan about the bars that spill out onto the streets along New Briggate, where friends gather before their respective shows. The astroturf-covered tables and artificial roses that embellish the enclosed seating area in front of The Brotherhood, whose entrance is flanked by two rather large tennis racquets, provides the plein air pre-gig espresso that I’m always in search of. A short distance up the street, I see the steps up to the Grand Theatre, strewn with a curious mix of Vieux Farka Touré aficionados and Abba fans mingling freely as they anticipate a good old sing along to the main auditorium’s performance of Mamma Mia! I imagined for a second, a confused mixed-up world where the two factions reversed roles, with the audience cheerfully joining in on all Vieux Farka Touré’s songs. I dared ponder this notion no further as showtime for both approached, although as it turned out, the Malian guitarist did actively encourage audience participation later in the concert. It doesn’t actually seem all that long ago since Vieux Farka Touré was last in town, that time also with his trio, albeit an entirely different one. On that occasion, a little over a year ago, I had a centre balcony seat where the sound was astonishing. Taking a seat directly above the sound desk almost guarantees the best sound in the house, second only to sitting at the desk itself. Tonight, I was a lot closer to the action, in fact I could only have been closer had I been sat upon the guitarist’s knee. From this vantage point I had access to the secrets of Vieux’s playing style. All the work comes from an overactive index finger, with a plastic finger pick attached, together with an equally busy thumb. This is where Farka Toure’s distinctive style lies, whether he’s playing a semi-acoustic guitar on the traditional sounding tunes such as Bonheur and Ni Negaba, both from his latest album release Samba, or on his trusty blue electric on the more bluesy numbers. The left hand is equally important of course, yet the driving force is right there on the right. Frequently referred to as the ‘Hendrix of the Sahara’, Vieux Farka Touré adds to this myth making process by presenting his music in a similar trio format to the Experience, on this tour flanked by Mamadou Kone on drums and calabash and Valery Assouan on five-string bass. The 35 year-old guitarist is constantly aware of his audience throughout the 90 minute show, his eyes alert and fixed as his attention vacillates between what his fingers are doing to what his audience is doing. Clearly enjoying every minute, a feeling shared by ‘Valess’ his permanently smiling bassist, who between them engage in some infectious choreography, the guitarist dominating the stage as Mamadou empathises with his informed and driving rhythms. Paying tribute to his late father, the legendary blues guitarist Ali Farka Touré, Vieux performed Ali to a spellbound Leeds audience. There’s always a sense of ‘Ali’ in the music his son makes, yet there’s also a greater sense that the songs are infused with an updated and contemporary feel, especially on the current material included in the set, which is often peppered with other World influences such as Reggae and Latin American grooves. Playing for 90 minutes with no support, the guitarist encouraged those in the stalls to join those on the balcony who were already up on their feet. Gesturing with both hands for the audience to rise, Vieux’s powers of persuasion worked their magic and the hall was soon visibly alive with motion and joy as the music became instantly more vibrant and rhythmically colourful. We’ve seen this time and again at the Howard Assembly Room, and it really does show the venue at its best. I guess this is how all music should be. To close, the musicians returned to the stage after lengthy applause to finish as they started, with the more traditional sound of the semi-acoustic guitar and tapping calabash. A suitable conclusion to a thoroughly enjoyable gig.