Grammy-winning desert rock band Tinariwen delivers stunning performance at Iron Horse

By Jackson Maxwell

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Last Thursday, the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton played host to desert rock band Tinariwen as they continued to tour the United States in support of their new album, “Emmaar.” Hypnotizing the packed crowd with their otherworldly mix of western rock, Arabic pop and radical North African protest music, Tinariwen truly put on a show for the ages.

Before Tinariwen took to the stage, London-based quintet, The Melodic, began the evening’s proceedings. Playing light but brisk folk-pop in a style more than a little reminiscent of fellow English folkies Stornoway, The Melodic easily won over the excited crowd. Songs like opener “On My Way” were light but played with a sturdy determination. Their songs played like folk dances, provoking a couple of the crowd’s more energetic members to turn the standing room only section of the Iron Horse into their own personal dance floor.

Although they did not exactly steal the show, The Melodic established themselves as solid openers with fluid, well-played tracks like “Plunge” and beautiful acoustic ballads. As is typically the case at the Iron Horse, the audience was incredibly enthusiastic and encouraging towards the Melodic, establishing the show’s communal, pleasant atmosphere right from the get go. Over their 40 minute set, The Melodic never put a foot wrong, and helped energize the crowd for Tinariwen.

Once the Malian sextet walked on stage at around 8 p.m., it was clear just whose show this was. In their dramatic, long and multi-colored robes, the bandmates were quite a sight to behold. The assembled crowd, by this time completely packed into the small venue, was eagerly awaiting the band’s arrival, and greeted their taking of the stage with a rapturous ovation. From there, the band began a simply staggering set that lasted over an hour.

Backed by the incredible rhythm section of bassist Eyadou Ag Leche and percussionist Said Ag Ayad, and guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid, Tinariwen’s three lead vocalists all traded the spotlight throughout the set. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Hassan Ag Touhami and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni all sang lead and played guitar on their own songs. When one was signing lead and playing lead guitar, the other two would stand to the right, providing stunning harmonies and backing vocals. The most incredible aspect of this triple front-man approach was the virtuosic guitar playing of all three singers. Alhabib, Touhami and Alhoussyeni were all in complete control of their songs, anchoring them with droning, hypnotic riffs that were simply mesmerizing.

Due to their lack of speaking English, the members of Tinariwen rarely spoke to the audience other than an occasional, brief “thank you.” This lack of interruption allowed for Tinariwen to really get into the zone of their set, building the momentum of the set to a hurricane-level force by concert’s end.

The material from the band’s most recent album, “Emmaar,” was undeniably impressive in live performance. Album highlights like “Toumast Tincha,” “Timadrit in Sahara” and “Imdiwanin ahi Tifhamam” came to life in concert in a way that could never be captured on record. The twisty riffs reverberated commandingly throughout the hall, the collective’s powerful vocals nailing the songs home.

Despite the group’s lack of English speech, their connection with the audience was obvious. Alhoussyeni and Alhabib especially took great joy in dancing when they weren’t unleashing sublime guitar riffs, and they often looked towards the audience, many of whom were dancing along with them.

Tinariwen’s set was not just limited to their more recent material. The band delved into a couple highlights off of their back catalog, most notably a remarkable version of “Arawan,” off of their 2004 album, “Amassakoul.” But the cherry on top of it all was their closing, 10 minute rendition of “Emmaar” highlight “Chaghaybou.”

Letting the song’s drone-heavy riff completely captivate the audience, the band kicked into high gear for the final song of their 90 minute set. Gradually picking up speed as it went on, the song sent various members of the audience into a state of ecstasy, dancing all around the crowded floor, completely absorbed into the music. The final chords of “Chaghaybou” were greeted with a standing ovation that must have reverberated through the entire town of Northampton.

Tinariwen brought 35 years of music to the Iron Horse on Thursday night, and commanded all of it with mastery. The band was air tight, not making a single mistake for the entirety of their 90 minute set. The band’s music, coming from such a distant, unknown land, can seem incredibly foreign to some at first listen. But, on Thursday night, the entire audience at the Iron Horse was able to connect with, and truly experience the music of Tinariwen, with a magical set from across the globe.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected]