An unlikely lineup at the last night of Brooklyn’s seventh annual Northside Festival, one angsty crooner Shilpa Ray opening for the sparkly and jubilant Sun Ra Arkestra. In a way it was the perfect bill, not only due to the heightened quality of the musicians on it, but that their disparity satisfies every longing you would ever have. To feel deep pain and anger out the mouth of Shilpa Ray, and then to have it lifted and kicked into the cosmos by Sun Ra…what more could you want?
If you haven’t heard of Shilpa Ray, I am so sorry. Now you have. There was a time when I too had not. I saw her by chance at an Eric Garner benefit gig at Shea Stadium, and was instantly bowled over. She was center stage playing a harmonium with an angry sensuality, and had voice like Patti Smith wrapped in Bette Midler. Her performance was gritty and passionate, and quite frankly left me stunned. Where had this woman been all my life????
Her impact was no less intense last Sunday at Rough Trade. Her backing band, or, her Rayettes as she calls them (“aren’t they sexy???”) includes guitarist Alistair Paxton, the energetic drumming of Russ Lemkin, and Jon Catfish DeLorme on a wailing pedal steel. Ray puts out a mixture of arrogance and sweetness-she’s one of those performers you can’t quite explain…there’s no quantifiable measurement of her charisma, she’s just got it. “This song’s called “Shilpa Ray’s Got a Heart Full of Dirt.” One time a journalist asked me why I put my name in my song titles, and I told her, ‘because I’m a narcissist.’” It’s the kind of remark that rubs you in two different directions, but you can’t begrudge Ray for the honesty. In some ways that’s shorthand for how her music makes you feel, like a cat being pet backwards.
If Shilpa Ray brushes your fur the wrong way (in the best manner possible, of course) then Sun Ra Arkestra will no doubt have you purring. Though the original Sun Ra died over twenty years ago, his Afrofuturistic, psychcosmic funk deities keep the son of Saturn’s soul very alive. The Arkestra’s set up is incredible. No fewer than a dozen men in their seventies playing some of the most searing avant-garde jazz you’ve ever heard-all while wearing sparkly capes and hats. Fronted by saxophonist Marshall Allen, the group is an indefinable tour de force of soul, jazz, funk, and experimental jams. Occasionally punctuated with the vocals of Tara Middleton, the sound was predominantly instrumental, even if some of the instruments were sublime and unrecognizable.
The crowd was fully entranced by the performance-how could you not be? Even if the deepest thought you could muster was: “Will I ever be half as cool as these geriatrics?” (no) there was no resisting sheer enjoyment. By the tail end of the set, three quarters of the band trailed off of the stage, blowing their horns in the air and shimmying through the audience in a slack conga line. We encircled the musicians and danced first around and them with them. It was as if, for a moment, that barrier between performer and observer had been completely dissolved. Just like Sun Ra believed he belonged to the cosmos, so we believed we belonged to Sun Ra.