With support from Jose Gonzalez
Tinariwen - Live At Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

At first glance it looks as though José González might be dwarfed by the stage at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. He’s one man with a guitar and the noisy crowd are packed in like the proverbial sardines. Luckily things calm down about four songs in, which is just as well since González, with his inspired combination of classical Spanish and folk guitar, is a quiet revelation. Unostentatious to the nth degree, the subtly catchy hooks of ‘Cycling Trivialities’ compliment a mellow, perfectly modulated vocal, and hush finally descends.

By the cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ it’s clear how skilful a man González is when re-imagining already ubiquitous material. In his hands, this ‘90s tripped-out classic transforms into something resembling early Neil Young (think ‘Old Man’), while Kylie’s ‘Hand on Your Heart’ suddenly throws up hidden depths. For all her later pop brilliance, this was one track that desperately needed a make-over, and González draws meaning from what is pretty vacuous, plastic pop. With a set drawn from his solo back catalogue, we can only pray to the gods of loveliness that new material will soon be forthcoming.

Accustomed to traversing the vastness of the Malian desert, Tinariwen, by contrast, are utterly unfazed by the space. In their brightly coloured, flowing desert robes, they occupy the stage as if they’d been gigging in West End venues their whole lives. Sadly, civil chaos in Mali means that lead singer, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and guitarist/singer Elaga Ag Hamid are unable to make the journey, but the ensemble nature of the group means that their roles are fulfilled amply by other members. There’s something heart-warming about a desert-robed Touareg wielding an electric guitar with such skill, and Tinariwen are a visual delight – the white swathed female vocalist undulates as she sings and claps while other members dance ecstatically across the front of the stage.

González is brought on for ‘Tenere Taqqim Tossam’, the only song with a chorus in English, for what is a highlight of the set. He adds a softer element to their now familiar, laid back, desert rock and demonstrates how collapsible genres of music really are – which is surely the point of Tinariwen. If the first half of the set is a mellow, head-nodding meditation on the Touareg way of life that drives the material, then the second half is pure Malian party. Comprised of some of their more drum and vocal-driven, rather than guitar-driven, numbers, hands are clapped enthusiastically on stage and off, and joy permeates the room.

There’s a surreal moment at the end when Jon Snow takes to the stage to present the band with the Songlines award for best group, 2012, thus cementing Tinariwen’s superstar status. There sadly may be chaos in their homeland, but with the likes of Tinariwen, Toumani Diabate and Fatoumata Diawara it’s good to see that Malian music is going from strength to strength.

Words by Theresa Heath
Photo by Olivia Ford

Click here for a photo gallery of the gig.

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