Recent Grammy winners don’t often pass this way, and especially not those whose early lives were spent dealing drugs, being handed a million dollar recording contract then being dumped by their label and then being left in a coma and with a mangled hand following a car crash. And then, to cap it all, only starting to write and play music again as a form of lullaby for their cranky baby. Music that became, in ‘The Last Days of Oakland’, the Contemporary Blues Album of the Year at the 59th Grammy Awards last February. Fantastic Negrito – even his nom de plume throws down a challenge to convention – has a huge story to tell and boy do we get to know it tonight, in his songs and his dialogue.
That story is already well documented and someone will make a biopic about it before long, for sure, but it isn’t until towards the end of an amazingly energetic set that Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz gets to speak about it. When he does, you could hear a pin drop as he recounts his misspent youth in a bad neighbourhood of Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area and the family members and friends lost to America’s passion for the Second Amendment and the gun. Then he dedicates ‘In the Pines’, his rewritten version of the traditional American folk song that dates back to the 19th century and which was popularised by Lead Belly in the 1940s, to the ‘strength of women’, recounting the dignity with which his mother handled the gun murder of his brother. It isn’t often you experience a confessional, especially not one performed in front of a paying audience, and it was riveting.
Fantastic Negrito sings a lot about women. Sometimes it’s simply about loving them. Often it’s about pulling them, which he’d just managed to do when his car was T-Boned. His other favourite topic is the need for ‘the real people’ to take on the might of the authorities and politicians. He talks vaguely of walls and of Texas being a Spanish word. Sometimes you can’t quite catch his meaning, dispensed as it is in an east-west (Brooklyn/California) drawl and with the pace and attitude of Muhammad Ali meets Martin Luther King, but you get the drift. Like Dylan said, you don’t need a weatherman…
You could spend an evening just listening to a lecture from this guy but people are there to hear him sing. He does so in everything from a falsetto to a Paul Robeson-like bass profundity, sometimes in the same line, as he stalks the stage, his eyes darting about and protruding from his head as he zeros in on an audience member, pointing and gesticulating, working the crowd like a bible-bashing preacher on a forgotten cable channel, occasionally dropping ‘Manchester’ into the lyrics where you know another place should be.
His style, his genre, is uniquely his own. Billed broadly as an exponent of the Blues, it is a sort of dynamic, fast-paced punk-blues, and covers topics such as ‘Hump through the Winter’, which apparently, perhaps surprisingly, is about when the American Dream becomes a nightmare, rather than a sex lesson. His lyrics can be funny, as in ‘Scary Woman’, where he sings “I gave her every inch of my dreams, she said it’s too small” (making a two-inch gap with his thumb and index).
In contrast they can be shocking, even offensive, as in ‘Rant Rushmore’s’ (itself a play on Mount Rushmore the cliff-side sculpture of four US Presidents) “Bitch, eat my cancer”. But this is the language of the streets and the alleys with which he is familiar; with his back story nobody can honestly expect him to be Judith Durham of The Seekers.
Too often one reads that someone ‘owned the room’. Backed by a tight band of musicians of the highest quality on keyboards, guitar, bass and drums, Fantastic Negrito came as close to that accolade as it is possible to experience when watching a live performance. Folk who were not Blues fans at heart before they made their way to Band on the Wall on Monday night came away as one.
Even if the Blues give you the blues do NOT miss this guy next time he’s in town.
Supporting a performance like that must be a daunting prospect but Miraculous Mule made a pretty good fist of it. The Londoners have been around the houses with various bands and apparently their first Manchester gig was at the Hacienda, which sort of dates them. No-one ‘got’ them on that night but the audience did tonight.
They play hard, driving rock/blues, and in Michael J Sheehy, a sort of cross between Ian Drury and Jeremy Corbyn, they have a singer/guitarist at the top of his game. They also dedicated a song, on this occasion to a subject of a recent event, in East London; one that would no doubt have attracted the attention of Fantastic Negrito had it taken place in Oakland.