Tinariwen @ Union Chapel, London 29.11.12

The desert blues wizards bring an acoustic show to London for two sellout nights. Bearded ironed on our Sunday best and took a pew.

Nov 29th, 2012 at Union Chapel, London / By Henry Bainbridge
Tinariwen @ Union Chapel, London 29.11.12 Bitter cold outside and not much warmer inside the cavernous Union Chapel, it’s an unusual experience to sit in duffel coat and scarf watching these robed West African desert musicians perform on the stage of a Victorian church in North London. With their acoustic instruments amplified through a state of the art sound system and candlelight flickering besides coloured stage lighting it is an incongruous but complementary collision of two worlds. Acclaimed by the world music press, rock musicians and festival crusties alike the Tuareg-speaking Saharans are on a European tour to promote their stripped-back newest release Tassili.

Amongst the grandeur of the restored and lovingly maintained Union Chapel, Tinariwen are beautifully and carefully presented; wrapped head to toe in flowing colourful garments that add a mystery and wisdom to the musicians that is somewhat less obvious when the relatively fresh-faced and (currently) mostly young musicians perform radio and studio sessions in t-shirts and jeans. I write ‘currently’ as Tinariwen is actually a loose collective of artists whose nomadic lifestyle makes it difficult to commit to a full-time fixed line-up.

This rotation of talent is reflected during the show as three separate musicians take the role of front man at various points, not only does this help keep a freshness to the sound but it also allows each member to display their virtuosity and personal interpretations of this bluesy desert rock music.

From the opening the neat playing is hampered by unnecessarily boosted low end from the stacked speakers and subs (a problem which is becoming endemic throughout UK venues – since when have kick drum and bass guitar needed to take up a third of the mix?!) but is still trancelike in its interweaving guitar phrases and complex looping percussion patterns.
Eyadou Ag Leche is the second member to take their turn at the centre microphone and the dynamic young bass player/guitarist’s forceful and vibrant attitude to the stage that is at its most exciting when joined by multiple voices. This series of songs is as close as Tinariwen ever get to a moment of transcendence throughout the night. Songs are short and become indiscernible at times as the band move through sounds and moods while restrained voices cut through the cool chapel air over insistent gentle grooves. Vocal harmonies are looser and less regimented than one would expect as the singers lean in and out of the microphone ranges giving an unusual sensation of listening in to a studio mixing session. Although billed as an acoustic show, electric guitars are used and the percussion is amplified up to fill the towering interior. It is testament to the selflessness of the musicians that, despite a wealth of technical ability, the music never feels overplayed or unwarranted; while arrangements are presumably unfixed, the musicians have a tacit understanding of what is necessary (perhaps a Tinariwen gig should be mandatory viewing for all aspiring bass players).

While perhaps not quite as exciting or ‘rebellious’ as the hype would have you believe, Tinariwen left the 800-capacity venue to a standing ovation and will undoubtedly continue to inspire romantic paeans from across the music industry.