Review: Vieux Farka Toure at Levitt Pavilion-Pasadena

Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic

Pasadena is known for many things -- the Rose Bowl Parade, free-flying parrots and the little old ladies among them -- but it’s never been considered a center for the rhythmic arts. Which is to say, few, if any, notable dance moves have been born here. 

You wouldn’t have known this on Friday night at Levitt Pavilion-Pasadena, though. Within 20 minutes, the masterful Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure and his three-piece band had prompted a creeping minority to groove their way to the front of the stage and peacock many visionary maneuvers.

The bouncing scrum grew as the night passed, much to the dismay of those hoping to absorb Toure and his band’s mesmerizing West African guitar music while relaxing on blankets or low-back lawn chairs.

PHOTOS: Vieux Farka Toure at Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena

It was fun to watch, actually, Toure and band offering smooth, infectious guitar jangle and labyrinthine rhythms while the calm crowd standing on the side started nodding with the beat. They eased closer to the music until the dam burst and dancers overwhelmed the area. By the end, a few of the best had landed onstage to work it out with the band.

Toure is a 32-year-old electric guitarist whose father, the late Ali Farka Toure, helped transform the sound and scope of guitar music in the region starting in the mid-1970s. A miraculous presence in many ways (of 10 sons born to his mother, for example, Ali was the only one to survive past infancy), he was born into a tribe of soldier families, and rebelled to swap the gun for the guitar.  

His son Vieux did the same, picking up skills and taking them in different directions, and on Friday he delivered music from his four studio albums, including his new “Mon Pays.” A dedication to his country, which teeters on the edge of war, he did so through songs with wending rhythms, curlicue guitar lines and Toure’s transfixing, insistent vocal wail.

Through it all, music poured from the bandshell, even if a scratchy muffle in the bass cabinets suggested a sound system in need of more wattage. As the evening progressed, palm trees turned to silhouettes, the sky turned from pink to blue and sound concerns faded along with it. 

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Vieux has earned the title “the Jimi Hendrix of Sahara,” an understandable (if simplistic) compliment. Whether through absorption or accident, tones throughout the evening suggested guitarists ranging from Robert Fripp of King Crimson -- that clean, piercing tone -- and Andy Summers of the Police to Jimmy Page, John Lee Hooker and Pat Metheny. Sheets of trebly guitars during opening song "Ali" even recalled Roger McGuinn's 12-string guitar solos on the Byrds' "Eight Miles High." 

"Ali" was from Toure's 2011 album "The Promise," which featured guitarists/admirers John Scofield, Dave Matthews and Derek Trucks. (One of his father Ali’s most notable releases was with Ry Cooder.) That album helped extend Toure's fan base, and illustrated the unspoken bond that connects musicians.

Toure’s fingers on Friday moved with impossible dexterity, especially on the late set highlight, “Na Maimouna Poissaniamba.” Crafting sounds as confident and intuitive as birdsongs, he offered an extended guitar solo that moved from searing fret craziness to delicate, loving tones.

The exquisite "Ay Bakoy" further explored this delicate side. One of the highlights of "Mon Pays," it's a slow-burning, blues-suggestive track on which Toure's touch weaved through his acoustic guitarist's generous support. The song confirmed Toure's talent not only when he was letting loose, but when a melancholy emotion dictated a softer approach. 

When he delivered this, the dancers slowed down as well, but they didn't stop. They merely swayed in wonder, absorbing the sound waves as though they were were part of a gentle Pasadena breeze easing its way in from the coast.


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