“Fasten your seat belts,” commanded Femi Kuti last night at the beginning of his performance at Grand Central, the downtown Miami venue where he kicked off his 2013 tour with his band, Positive Force. It was an appropriate warning from this heir to the Afrobeat throne created by his father, the late, great Fela. Those who came expecting anything like Femi’s recent, jazzier noodlings were definitely in for a bumpy ride. His nearly two-hour performance exploded in a whirlwind of brass, heavy guitar funk, and a singer/frontman who seemed to dance off a sweaty fever, twirling, dancing, and manning instruments from trumpet to keyboard.
Femi’s forthcoming new studio album, No Place For My Dream, is due out in April and has been hailed by its label and earliest press as a return to his earlier, more brash and staunchly political material. As such, he structured his set seamlessly, moving from old classics to newer songs and back. All of it came together like one long, extended dance mix, more psychedelic in its sheer force and unpredictability than any “psych” band could hope to be, and also more issues-oriented than the average “conscious” rapper. Femi’s tactic is wise — he lures the listener into a party before getting to the important stuff, lyrically, but then keeps the party going anyways. Decrying worldwide corruption and decay doesn’t necessarily have to be a drag, right? (Femi, can you call the world’s crust punks and let them know?)
And so it was that a crowd of several hundred soigne bohemians found themselves, less than 20 minutes into the show, borderline-twerking in a humid mass to a song whose chorus repeated “Stop AIDS,” ad infinitum. And how could you not get swept along by the sheer force of Positive Force? The band itself formed a small army. There was a guitarist, bassist, a drummer, an additional percussionist, an electric pianist, and a horn section, plus two tireless, loose-hipped dancers and backup singers bedecked in bright, beaded neon skirts and decorative face paint.
For every declarative lyric Femi intoned, these two had a nimble, chanted response, adding to whatever he said and keeping the momentum of each song going. The momentum wasn’t always easy or predictable to follow. The group’s drummers might keep a rhythm going while the brass faded away and Femi soloed on a sax for minutes at a time, before drawing things back to the point at hand, erupting again into a chorus. Songs climaxed and climaxed again during their climaxes, with the intensity level rarely falling below, say, an eight.
Old classics like “Dem Bobo” melded seamlessly with the newer fare, in which Femi minced no words criticizing the government of his home country, Nigeria, as well as the governments of nearly every other major power. “Africa cannot hold free elections,” went one chorus. “People are too hungry to listen.” Later, during “Politic Na Big Business,” he chanted, repeatedly, “These leaders should be called stealers.”
Femi made sure to inject the proceedings with some lighter moments, too. At one point, he doled out some dating advice, riffing through a long speech on courtship rituals that finished up with him singing the conclusion: “Don’t come too fast!” That, then, led to a quick segue back into another old classic, “Beng Beng Beng,” which the band picked up again during the encore. It’s no surprise Femi and his band were performing fresh off a stint on the Jam Cruise — they managed to stretch this song across another good 15 minutes, including another light-hearted speech warning against drunk driving. (“You may be feeling squishy from the drink,” the singer warned, but you might wind up mistaking an oncoming train for a street light.)
In fact, even after Kuti finally took a bow and left the stage, his band played on, continuing the call-and-response vocals and letting the jam simmer down slowly. No matter how they tried to gradually turn down the heat, though, Femi had scorched everything in his path. Forget the jazz, the experimentation, the calmer version of this performer — he’s back in full, take-no-prisoners form at a time when his fans and the world at large need it most.