At times cool and easy, others intense and urgent, but always tightily controlled, Makaya McCraven’s performance on Saturday night was one of contrasts. Even when he and the band were playing full-tilt and things seemed just at the brink of going off the rails and falling to pieces, the band effortlessly brought it back at the drop of a hat. McCraven had his hands on the wheel the whole time.
Music enthusiasts young and old had swarmed around the stage at Adelaide Hall to see the drummer, producer and aptly nicknamed "beat scientist" McCraven and his five-piece ensemble perform. McCraven was pumping out a sturdy, but haggard and heavy shuffle while the tenor saxophone and guitar doubled on a descending melody over suspended chords from the keys and bass. The whole crowd was nodding along with each fall of McCraven’s sticks on the ride cymbal. Sax player Greg Ward took a solo as the band started to turn up the heat. Then it was guitar player Matt Gold’s turn, ripping a wild solo up and down the neck of his red Telecaster. The rest of the band got wilder as this went on, reaching an almost cacophonous climax before quickly returning to the groove that was somehow always there, sitting in the background of the chaos, to finish the tune.
But McCraven wasn’t finished. Taking only a moment to cool off and allow the audience to register that the song had finished - but before they had the chance for much applause - McCraven was off. Hammering out a solo of complex tuplets and polyrhythms, his hands glided across the kit, leading the band into the next tune. This time the groove was a sweet, relaxed 6/8 jam. Junius Paul’s bassline was reggae-like in motion, and chords from Greg Spero’s keys snuck in just as quickly as they faded back out. Saxophone and guitar doubled up again on an angular melody over top of all this.
The groove didn’t stay that straightforward for long, though, as McCraven switched it up, throwing it into a double-time swing. The guitar and sax were no longer doubled, but egging each other on in a hastening call-and-response, McCraven hitting the kick on each beat and tossing in booming fills to add some more oomph. Untamable, the band then switched it up again, this time towards a disco feel, with a swung variation on a four-on-the-floor beat, before rounding back into the original groove once again to bookend the tune.
The selection throughout the evening was as varied as the sounds and feels the band produced with each new moment on stage. Pieces from across McCraven’s discography made appearances, from songs like “Young Genius” and “Atlantic Black,” (from 2018’s Universal Beings) to the song “New Movement” from McCraven’s first album, Split Decision, reinterpreted 7 years later. At the mid-point in the show they did a smooth, subtle and sultry cover of “There Comes A Time,” by Tony Williams, which Paul sang with a voice like butter. They closed off their set with the rhythmically complicated “This Place, That Place.” Listening to the drum part told you one thing, but the guitar and bass told another, jumping in almost unpredictably, in unison. The isolated notes darted from here to there, only giving way to a sense of fluidity when the saxophone came in and lead the band into a chorus of sorts. In this way, the musicians were all like magicians refusing to reveal their secrets, yet whose seemingly random actions proved to be a well orchestrated spectacle, and the effect was astounding.
McCraven and his band still had one more thing in store for us: as an encore they played their reimagined version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Somehow, they managed to make a song about incredibly tall flowers and train attendants made of plasticine even more Zen dreamy than it already was. When they say it’s a "reimagined" version, they mean it. The band really had fun with it, occasionally allowing the melody to chime in on the sax or guitar, adding that extra shot of recognizeability needed to remind us we were hearing a Beatles song.
An incredible experience all around - I left Makaya McCraven’s concert even more excited than when I went in.