In an ever-shrinking world, artisans are often drawn to fusions that would have been unthinkable a generation or two ago – often, these boundary-breaking combinations work better on paper than in practice. Afro Celt Sound System, which has been at it for the better part of a decade, makes good on an unlikely melange of cross-cultural influences only hinted at by the band’s moniker.
At this, their first Gotham show since 1999, the ensemble drifted between lilting bits of bucolic melody (generally anchored by the lovely uilleann piping of Emer Mayock) and unabashedly sensual rhythmic pulse (heightened by the contributions of Pete Lockett, who held court on more than a dozen different percussive implements).
When the two elements came together – particularly when given a center by vocalists Iarla O Lionaird and N’Faly Kouyate – Afro Celt Sound System hit implausible heights. The former singer, possessed of a soaring classic tenor, quieted the rowdy crowd with a delicate, virtually a capella rendition of “Summer, Summer,” while the latter (who also showed dexterity on the kora) provided a keening counterpoint, at once exotic and easily to relate to.
The 100-minute set flagged only when the band backed off from its intense cross-pollination, as on the flaccid rock ballad “When You’re Falling” (which could pass for an uninspired U2 album track). Likewise, when the percussionists grew more concerned with engaging each other in aural games of Horse than with furthering a rhythmic pattern, it was easy to lose interest.
For the most part, however, the players stayed on point, particularly when de facto leader James McNally held centerstage with his bodhran drum, which provided a locus for talking drum virtuoso Moussa Sissokho’s peripatetic playing. They engaged each other with both clever sonic games and a sense of passion that was heightened (notably on “Colossus” and two decidedly different renditions of “Whirl-Y-Reel”) by Simon Emmerson’s bouzouki strum.
With an increasing array of Middle Eastern influences (the contribution of percussionist Johnny Kalsi) and electronic underpinnings, the nonet made the overused term “world music” seem suddenly valid again.