Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Antibalas show last Thursday at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn was catching a post-pubescent Haley Joel Osment in the crowd, wearing a duck-billed fisherman’s hat and dancing awkwardly with a bottle of Coors in his hand, struggling to keep his date from passing out completely. It’s hard to admit, but the secondhand lion unintentionally stole the show, if only because he was the most surprising aspect of the whole evening. For an act that’s been repeatedly hailed as the torch-bearing musical kin of the late great Fela Kuti, Antibalas failed to live up to their reputation as masters of the afrobeat genre Kuti himself single-handedly worked to define, and instead came off as gimmicky, predictable and, consequently, disappointing.
But maybe it’s not all their fault. After all, the band has been enjoying a recent jaunt as the backing band for Fela!, the Broadway musical famously produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith. The showmanship has certainly rubbed off on the thirteen-piece, who did play a well-rehearsed set that spanned their decade-plus run. There’s no arguing that the group has chops; they even did a solid version of Bob Marley’s “Rat Race”, replacing the original’s somber desperation with a fever-pitched groove that would make James Brown jealous. But for the most part it was obvious that Antibalas has played this show many times before, and they performed their routine with the mechanic precision of an improv team that’s been playing the same gag for the past thirty-five years: sure, they know the punch line and when to say it, but they’re no longer sure why it’s supposed to be funny. The endless call-and-response chants to the crowd, the extended solos, the uninspiring between-song banter… they all carried the stale weight of meticulous rehearsal. Which is good from a musical standpoint, but horrible if you’re going to rely on novel crowd teasers to keep people on their feet.
A magician is only as wise as his riddles are mysterious. If a band’s going to rely on parlor tricks, they’d do well to keep a variety of gimmicks on the back burner. For example, I remember being completely blown away the first time I ever saw The Flaming Lips, watching in awe as Wayne Coyne walked over the crowd in a giant bubble, blowing confetti out of a gun, and spontaneously singing happy birthday to 12,000 or so people. I also remember seeing the exact same show a year later and walking away feeling as if I’d been cheated twice. If I were to go to the next Antibalas show at the Knitting Factory — which is on New Year’s Eve for those interested — I’m positive I could tell you when each member is going to take his solo, walk along the front of the stage to shake hands with the crowd, and at the end of the show, when they say “We’re Antibalas. We are, and always will be, from Brooklyn, New York,” I’ll know it’s my cue to start chanting and raving. And, less than a month after hearing those same words at that very same place, I’m certain the effect would be even less stimulating than it was the first time around. And I’m almost certain that Haley Joel Osment wouldn’t be there.