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Brian Blade and Mama Rosa: Sept.11 at Blue Horse Gallery

The evening begins with the clarion call of a coal train whistle in the distance. Brian Blade and the Mama Rosa Band are assembled on the stage at the Blue Horse listening, smiling as the sound fades into a slow dirge on the keyboards. Blade is singing there is “no fear of darkness with you by my side.” Only moments into the performance and there is a sense of experiencing something extraordinary. There is a beautiful gospel intensity filling the room, a sudden spiritual quality. Then, the song is over, a fragment from a lost rock opera, opening up the possibilities of music, reconstructing the expectations of the night. The capacity crowd is transfixed.

Three songs in, there are soulful echoes of Bobby Womack, elements of Across 100th Street. Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man. Something there of Beck from Sea Change. The songs trail off, segueing into each other seamlessly, underlining the interconnectedness to each other. Gentle and accomplished experimentation with structure and form lead me to slightly muse what Jimi Hendrix would have sounded like if he were still alive.

What follows is the deeply spiritual, Mercy Angel.  “Feel the sunshine on my skin / It must be you smiling within / From above, I feel your love fall downward / Troubled waters wash over me.” Beautifully accompanied on vocals by Kelly Jones. Blade’s guitar has a sharp, percussive quality. Goffrey Moore’s lead creating unexpected whips and wails of sound almost of time, transcending time signatures, rising from deep spaces with the music and then moving out front and center. Chris Thomas and Steve Nistor constructing solid architectures of sound around them. There is a slow build from plaintive solitary exploration to a communal celebration. Then the return to the solitary singer addressing his angel. There is an intimacy here, like witnessing someone say his prayers. It is beautiful and transcendent.

These songs are vignettes into the spiritual world of the singer. They are studies in sonic textures and modes, as a means of self-exploration through musical expression. In an interview, Blade said, “Revealing more of ourselves is always daunting, but I feel like I need to keep challenging myself and peeling away layers to get to the core of who I am and what I have to offer.”

After a short break, the second set resumes the atmospheric gospel tones with rounded, soft sculpted chords. The phrase “come down to the old country” evokes a small country church choir. This builds up through ecstatic repetition into musical vocalizations that move beyond language and pure sound. Expressive sounds, chants, the speaking in tongues. The band is more relaxed. The music is more open. Song structures are broken apart and there is space for a sort of dynamic improvisation to occur. At one point, Brian says to the audience: “Being with people you love and trust allows you possibilities of chance taking, that you have shoulders to lean on, so let’s take a chance….”

The extraordinary song, At the Centerline, quotes the Serenity Prayer, following with the sublime line: “mercy hold us when we fall.” The crowd at the Blue Horse is hanging on every note, intent on following the narrative of the music all the way through. There is rare and beautiful intensity of quiet participation in the unfolding of the performance.

Penultimate is a cover of Fire and Brimstone by Link Wray, which sets ablaze all of the introspective spiritual intensity and provides a cathartic release for the room. Images of the Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God dancing to the devil’s music in a small country church a hot summer night.

An encore comes without question. Steve Nistor rumbling the drums darkly. Chris Thomas’ deep bass voice balanced beautifully with Kelly Jones’ and Brain Blade in the middle singing: “they tell me of a home.” Goffrey Moore’s guitar is blistering the air up on the stage. A supreme moment held there, sustained, harmonious. And then, in one of those poetic and magical moments, the distant whistle of the train rises out of darkness to announce the end.