Akron/Family, LIVE REVIEWThe Independent, San Francisco, CA, 10/11/07 My colleagues at Relix have been urging me of late to check out Akron/Family, as part of the rising psychedelic tide of the late mid zeroes. Their recent disc, Love Is Simple, doesn’t seem quite like rock ‘n’ roll so much as tribal jubilance, a bunch of people shouting and thumping and drumming and rejoicing vocally. Sonically clear and carefully produced, the Beatles on American Indian mysticism, instead of East Indian. Somewhere in there (“Crickets”) is the sound of summer in the humid temperate zone, peepers chirping and cicadas munching on leaves, and rubbing their legs together. Live, would they be crickets or guitars or drums or what?
The answer is yes.
Akron/Family came on quiet, but as those voices—those shouting singing voices—kicked in and in, they sucked you in off the street. Word was that they had been busting Dead covers. They look like Deadheads, for sure—rolled out of the bus, de-loused and freshly shorn of their dreadlocks—but they don’t sound like the Dead. Not so early in the night. Not until they want to.
Akron/Family is a big party onstage, a dudefest, a street gang with joy instead of knives—a riot of drums and drums, funk, tribal stomp and too many guitars. Only they’ve solved the latter problem for the ages by matching the three-guitar assault with two drummers and percussion and all those voices. Everybody sings in this band. The drummers, the bassist, the guitarists and the keyboard player. And they all sing, all eight of them, nine of them—more keep appearing—pretty much all the time. Like those jubilant moments on old Fishbone and Chili Peppers records from the mid-’80s, when those bands were channeling the P-Funk mob. And like big-band Funkadelic itself, when the funk is tight and rigid and exploding all over itself.
Tunes that, on the record, feel sparse, were filled out live by more instrumentation (supplied by a collaboration, which should remain permanent, with Raleigh trio Megafaun, and guitarist Greg Davis) and by the crowd whooping it up, even in the reserved too-cool of Thursday night in San Francisco. At other times, their sound recalled Santana—and you could tell they were grooving on being in San Francisco, just a few blocks off Haight Street. So they jammed on Santana’s version of Gabor Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen” —and then they brought it into “Turn On Your Lovelight,” (Scott/Malone) as played by the Dead, sure, with PigPen fronting, in deep 1969. No uninspired noodle, this crackled with energy. The moustachioed bass player was channeling Pigpen, shouting it out, down on his knees, (“on my knees!”) letting it shine while the band chanted “shine on me/ shine on me/ shine on me.” Then back to Gypsy Queen. And the crickets, from a recording, munching and chirping.
They thumped back into Native American mode, with the crowd clapping and chanting “he-he-hey!” on “Ed Is a Portal” —an anthem. And then they took their shirts off and swung ‘em around in the air, half-nekkid whiteboys becoming a full-on Brooklyn hip-hop crew without it being a put-on. They slipped just as easily into “Of All the Things,” which has the vibe of, say, midnight-thirty on Saint Patrick’s Day.
This is a beast with many legs and many guises, a jubilant storm cloud dancing, chanting, singing, pounding on drums, kicking, high-stepping, jumping.
Despite the ultra-high energy performance, one of the guitarists (the Anastasio-Lennon-y fellow playing the classic Gibson, not the two wookie bros playing teles) has to exhort the too-laid-back San Francisco crowd to clap more to bring them back onstage. When
they do, the bassist announces that they are going to sing an old song, and if the crowd knows the words, the crowd should sing along. The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo.” He’s joking—that’s not the chosen encore. But the band starts singing “Kokomo” anyway. They all know it, the crowd knows it—everyone sings it together, and they’re so used to creating harmony from all these voices without the theory, it works. The keyboard player surprises them by knowing the chords. Eventually it breaks down. What they really wanted to do was “I Know You Rider” —an a capella cover (with banjo) of the Dead’s arrangement. It has its own energy.
They leave the stage again, but this time the crowd won’t let them go home—jaded San Francisco has picked up the vibe and is clapping a beat that gets faster and faster with each round. The A/F Mobb returns, winging it loose through the second encore, riding the Great San Francisco Dancehall Tradition—they might go all night long—until some exhausted band members start to leave the stage individually. They bring it down until the crowd is satisfied and can drift home.
But “HEEEEE-eeeeeeyyy, WhooOOAAOOohhh” remains, bomb-a-bomp-a-bomp, bomp-a-bomp-a-bomp, a chanting and a whomping away in their heads, on down the street, infectious joy.