In the UK to support his new album Please Don’t Be Dead, the Grammy award-winning artist brought his eclectic fusion of blues, funk and soul to the intimate setting of ‘Dingwalls’ – a live music venue buried deep in underground Camden. A famously alternative and ‘grungy’ part of London, Camden is a perfect place for music fans and artists alike.
Even on a simple stroll through its streets one can hear faint sounds of reggae one minute and hard rock the next. For Fantastic Negrito the modest nature of Dingwalls gave him a unique opportunity to connect with his audience in ways that not many artists ever could. And that, as one would quickly found out, proved to be a imperative aspect of his show.
Accompanied by four very talented (and impeccably dressed) musicians, Fantastic Negrito wandered onto the stage – his iconic little afro distinctly silhouetted in the dark red hue. He starts with a boisterous “Oh yeah!” into the microphone and goes for his first dramatic opening note on the guitar.
But it did not go to plan – “Wait a minute, stop, stop, stop! They didn’t plug in my guitar! Now ain’t that bullshit?!”. It was a comedic interlude that would go on to define all of his on-stage demeanor for the rest of the night.
Opening the show with Bad Guy Necessity, the band was able to produce a level of funk enough to move the entire crowd, the majority of which were already swaying side to side with enjoyment. They wasted no time in showing off their musical aptitude – just the opening song alone produced two guitar solos and one keyboard solo.
It was a 10 minute epic that solidified Fantastic Negrito’s reputation as a legendary showman. From his red silk vest to his rainbow-striped trousers, he has such presence on stage that it was virtually impossible to look at anything or anyone else.
For the uninitiated, Fantastic Negrito is the stage name given to (in his own words) “a musician who is reborn after going through a lot of awful shit”. Every song he has written is rarely devoid of a greater purpose. There is always an underlying connection to his own personal truths and to harrowing experiences he invites others to live vicariously through music.
In songs such as Lost in the Crowd and Hump Thru the Winter, he eloquently ties in elements of traditional African-American folk made famous in the late 1800s with his own brand of blues rock. It’s an important connection he exudes so brilliantly through both his music and physical presence on stage. In fact, what makes Fantastic Negrito so unique is that his own personal narrative is just as important as his sound. Quite frankly, the narrative is the sound.
What also defines Fantastic Negrito is his sense of humour. Most likely a consequence of a life riddled with hard and often tragic setbacks, his between-song banter is thoroughly entertaining.
Throughout the entire show, he took any opportunity to talk – often times directly – with his audience. During one interlude he exclaims: “because I’m famous I will happily sign anything you throw at me – big, small, round, wet, dry. Nothing is off limits!”, or when he noticed his fly was open: “it’s supposed to be that way – I want to share everything with you”. They are hilarious moments in the show where Fantastic Negrito shares every thought in his brain, however necessary that might be.
As the band continues with classic numbers Scary Woman, Rant Rushmore, and Working Poor right through to brand new tracks The Duffler and Plastic Hamburgers. Every song, however heavy or soft, is delivered with such vigour and passion often times crescendoing into a dramatic finale. It is an ultimate crowd pleasing experience, particularly where music, performance and entertainment are harmonious and complementary.
But perhaps the most memorable moment of the gig has to be Fantastic Negrito’s performance of In the Pines (Oakland). Instantly recognisable, this song is a semi-cover of the famous American folk song (of African American heritage) also known as Where Did You Sleep Last Night and The Longest Train.
Importantly, it is a song that carries with it an historic element of hardship to which Negrito ties to his personal grief of witnessing the deaths of his brother, cousin and best friend – all by gunshot. It’s a song that has such passion, such personal importance that it called for uninterrupted respect. As he told his story the room literally fell silent. It was an incredible and thought-provoking moment. One that only an artist with a genuine connection to the story could achieve.
And, as quickly as it transpired, the show came to a brisk end – over curfew but in quite an eloquent style. There was no encore. No cheering in darkness to coerce a return to stage. It was just over. More or less, this ending was a testament to Fantastic Negrito’s entire demeanour and to his “no bullshit” attitude. A charismatic, humorous and all round brilliant entertainer this is a show not to be missed – should we be lucky enough to see him again.
Fantastic Negrito will tour Europe in June, including five UK dates, before returning to the US for an album release event at the historic Fillmore in San Francisco.
Live Review by Lilen Paulista & Photography by Sarah Sievers of Fantastic Negrito at Dingwalls on June 1st 2018.