Raúl Midón was the first to take the stage with a warm but modest welcome from the crowd. His current fans cheered loudly as he opened his first song, but it was the rapid conversion of new fans that created repeated bursts of applause at transitions and gasps of amazement throughout the first piece. Midón, visually impaired from his infancy, approaches the guitar in a definitive style, thoroughly familiar with all of the potential ways he can strum, slap, knock, tap and scratch the acoustic to produce a blend of melodic tones and percussive rhythms, all while armed with intentionally grown fingernails both long enough and with enough strength to serve as guitar picks on each finger. While that would be enough to impress most, the New Mexico native is far more than a guitar, often playing a pair of bongos in front of him simultaneously, imitating the sounds of a trumpet using simply his lips and then even has a delightful singing voice that is constantly compared to Stevie Wonder.
Midón's set opened with a favorite from his first album, "Sunshine (I Can Fly)," delivering an extended version that ran down his resume of abilities. With a firm grasp on the room's attention, he treated the crowd to a couple of new. The second, "God's Dream," is slated to be arranged for a full orchestra and it was fascinating to see the sound develop throughout the piece, easy to imagine the full arrangement forming around the solo performer. Beyond his own music, Midón covered Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite," executed with a clean sound on his guitar that demonstrated his abilities with traditional music. He closed with his earliest single and forever a crowd favorite, "State of Mind," blowing everybody away one last time before relinquishing the spotlight.
The stage was set with an exciting array of instruments for the second act, Mali's Habib Koité and his band Bamada. Like Midón, Koité is a veteran of the guitar with an unusual approach to the instrument. He tunes his guitar to a pentatonic scale, allowing him to make constant use of open strings with help from a capo to set the key. His style was heavily influenced by western music, particularly ripe with blues flavor to many of his solos and well matched by the musicians in Bamada. He was charmingly awkward on stage, struggling with the English language at times and suffering a laughable miscue on which city he was in, but endeared himself to the crowd and enjoyed a few inside jokes when Malinese members of the audience teased him about it. They played many their favorites and a few new songs from the upcoming release "Soo."
With the language barrier, the members of Bamada were not introduced, but they were very much part of the show. Joining Koité on lead was another guitarist that mixed a banjo in on many songs and most strongly matched the front man's style. On the opposite side of the stage, stood a rare left-handed bassist who picked up a n'goni for a couple of songs mid-set as well. On the backline there was a keyboardist who was given a fine chance to shine at the end of the set, beautifully mimicking a kora and an accordion within an upbeat, danceable tune. As with any Western African arrangement, the percussionist was both key and impressive. While he accessorized with a djembe and an electric drum pad as well as rattling wrist and ankle bands, most rhythms were created on a more uncommon instrument that resembled an overturned wooden bowl mounted felixibly on top of covered box or frame, and it singlehandedly offered a full range of percussive sounds.
Together, Midón and Koité reminded us all of the West African roots to much of our American music and demonstrated how our music has in turn influenced theirs. Beyond entertaining, the split bill at the Sheldon enlightened the crowd, potently exhibiting the effect of culturally stimulating music.
Raul Midón set list:
Sunshine (I Can Fly)
All You Need
Yardbird Suite (Charlie Parker cover)
Listen to the Rain
Mi Amigo Cubano (co-written with Bill Withers)
Was It Ever Really Love?
State of Mind