Fathead, Town Hall Get In A Tribal Groove

Posted: March 05, 2001

Maybe it was the impending nor'easter. Maybe it was a calm after Fat Tuesday's rioting. Whatever drove an enthusiastic crowd into South Street's Theatre of Living Arts on Saturday night seemed a spirit of sorts - tribes looking for a message. The message came, as it does in most tribal ritual, in the form of rhythm, pulses and impulses multiflavored and deeply grooved.

The night started with a new Philly quintet, Town Hall. Theirs is a slow-low groove, a union of precocious bass and "funky drummer" rhythm bubbling under old-soul melody. That gutsy sound, aided by singer/trombonist George Stanford's unrestrained squawk, was like vintage Van Morrison by borrowing from American blues but paying back in English pounds.

The complex melodies seem inspired by guitarists Eric Gale and Steve Howe and psychedelic acid jazz - a fluid sound even in its frenzied finale of blasting brass. Seeing Town Hall was as exciting as witnessing the Roots taking hip-hop by storm on the corner of Fifth and South a decade or so ago. When Stanford babbles "Tonight I am the master of the universe," his haughty demeanor makes it plausible.

Venezuela's Los Amigos Invisible made a relaxed-fit Latin disco, a physical sound with a bottom thicker than a swamp. Atop rolling conga and drums, Los Amigos play loose with the myth of disco, pulling out all the giddy stops of flickering strobe lights, wah-wah guitars, mock vibraphones, squirrely space-synth effects, and sweetly tuneful chants. For all the kitsch, Los Amigos was sincere about making memorable melody you could hustle to.

Philly's unfettered funky Fathead headlined this tribal gathering. They, too, play low and slow. But Fathead - with its two rapper-singers, saxophone, and so on - are masters of quietly frantic jazz with a hip-hop edge. These seven men toy with angular bop-jazz cool, as if Steely Dan had blessed the event.

That's most apparent from their relaxed, roughshod arrangements - a spacious, spartan sound that gives room for the rappers to sing soulfully, for guitars to buzz busily, and for the keyboardist to run the gamut of emotion from Hammond B-3 soul to tender piano riffing.

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