Three Sets, Two Bands and a Snowstorm

October 31st, 2011

Medeski Martin & Wood/Antibalas – Terminal 5 – October 29, 2011

What are you dressing up as? It’s the annual question every Halloween. This past Saturday, the night most people were out celebrating, it was New York City itself wearing a costume. The whole city dressed as winter with a crazy October snowstorm. What better way to celebrate a freak storm than with some freak music: Medeski, Martin & Wood and Antibalas at Terminal 5. While some brave folks wore costumes, most in attendance dressed like they were just trying to stay warm and dry, and once the music started, there was no problem there.

Antibalas got the crowd moving with a solid set of Brooklyn-style Afrobeat so that by the time MMW took the stage, no one was thinking about what was going on outside. The trio, celebrating a 20th anniversary, has spent the entire year playing like there’s another 20 years ahead. The set list was by request—fans were invited to choose the songs they wanted to hear most online. The result was a show heavy on groovers almost exclusively from two early albums, Friday Afternoon in the Universe and Shack-man, as well as a great rare-cover bust out of “Psychedelic Sally.” John Medeski was dressed as a sumo wrestler and attacked all manner of keyboards, on songs like “Last Chance to Dance Trance (Perhaps),” with the artful reckless abandon of those massive athletes. Chris Wood was either Uncle Sam or Noel Redding, most likely the latter, but I prefer to think it was the former because he unleashed an arsenal of nasty bass playing like it was his patriotic duty on classic numbers like “Chubb Sub.” And Billy Martin was Cookie Monster, appropriate because he was gobbling up the rhythms on tunes like “Bubblehouse” without care of what kind of crumbs he’d left behind.

As if that weren’t enough, there was a third set with Medeski, Martin & Wood and Antibalas playing together. With 15 musicians onstage, the effect was like dumping out your pillowcase after a night of trick-or-treating. With the colorful array of chocolate and nougat and candy coating, the first reaction was “this might be a little too much.” But once they all started playing, the result was a fabulous Frankengroove merging the best parts of each group. The highlight was a big-band take on the Halloween-appropriate MMW tune “Dracula,” with the lights going purple and dark and the music following into deep, mysterious territory. It was as transcendent as a snowstorm in October. —A. Stein