T he inside of Lee's Palace Wednesday night was barer than the bleachers at an Expos home game after the poutine runs out. People stayed away from the Antibalas show in droves.
Evidently, the whole question of whether a bunch of New York knuckleheads could play Nigerian afrobeat according to the funky guidelines set down by Fela Anikulapo Kuti wasn't all that intriguing to the Toronto concert-going public.
The curious few who did turn up were treated to a boffo old-school R&B hip-drop from the always swinging Sugarman 3. Right, tight and, yes, outta sight. But when they finished rockin' the donkey, it seemed like half the crowd had vanished.
But nobody had actually left the venue. The 11 members of Antibalas, who'd been getting loose on the floor, had just slipped backstage to get into their stage dashikis. By showtime, there were definitely more people in the club with instruments in their hands than beer bottles.
Even with a few members missing -- regrettably, the group's heavy-puffing trombonist Don Bonus did not make the gig -- the ragtag Antibalas orchestra blowing at full throttle was very impressive. They didn't lay down a groove so much as stumble and fall into one. Although the band's namesake baritone saxophonist Martín Antibalas introduced the numbers, there was no clear leader conducting the proceedings.
After the count-off, the performers would gradually start clanking and tooting until they reached ramming speed. When it felt right, Jordan McLean would answer Antibalas's bari-sax growls with pocket-trumpet blasts, while the conga duo of Duke Amayo and Fernando Velez spanked skin at a percussive gallop.
Conguero Amayo eventually stepped forward to lead the more eager audience members in a call-and-answer chant, but its salacious innuendo appeared to be lost on the gleeful participants, who were not up on their Yoruban slang.
The herky-jerky Antibalas smack wasn't as forcefully delivered as you might expect Fela Kuti's charged-up Africa 70 assault unit to be, but what did come out of the 11 weedy wonders onstage rattled with the unmistakable percolation of afrobeat.
ANTIBALAS, with SUGARMAN 3, at Lee's Palace, September 20. Tickets: $12. Attendance: 50. Rating: NNNN