From the moment he took the stage, resplendent in a sparkling white suit patterned with what looked like bottle shapes, King Sunny Ade radiated exactly the kind of power his middle name implies. And solar power was of course appropriate, as the show took place on the Thursday eve of Solstice weekend, traditionally a time when Santa Barbarans let loose and explore their affinity for dancing along to drumbeats from all over the world. The large crowd at the Lobero responded enthusiastically to the big African band of 13 onstage, the rest of whom were dressed identically in multi-colored versions of the smock-suit worn by their leader.
Despite the delicacy of the a cappella intro, the band’s rhythm section of bass, guitar, trap set, and multiple hand drums dominated the night, giving shape to the many shifting tempos and grooves of Ade’s signature “juju” style. What was missing though-and sorely missed by those expecting it-was Ade’s equally recognizable guitar playing. With only a single electronic keyboard player to weave melodies on top of all that drumming and singing, the music sounded washed out. The arrangements on even Ade’s recent recordings are so much more layered and robust that at times it was like seeing the Rolling Stones without Keith Richards-kind of amazing, but not even close to what it should be.
Adding to the frustration of this scaled-back approach was the fact that Ade is himself an extraordinary guitarist, as he showed during the one sequence when he strapped on the instrument and played-a gesture which lasted for all of two minutes out of a two-hour-long concert.
Ade’s guitar playing seemed to come as a result of the onstage arrival of his two excellent dancers, a pair of African women who offered an incarnation of the image known to the Western world as the Hottentot Venus. Modern translation? How about “Baby got back?” Perhaps the dancing appealed to Ade’s sense of himself as a praise singer, and the women offered him the stimulation he needed to pursue the muse on his guitar, as well as with his voice. In any event, the segment was all too brief, and seemed over before it began. Nevertheless, the long side aisles of the Lobero filled with dancing bodies as the crowd responded to this paradoxically bare-bones sounding big band.