Last Thursday night I had the pleasure of seeing Kamesi Washington and his band open for Sylvan Esso at the Greek Theatre in Berkley. The night was cool with a pink electric fog burning against an encroaching dusk. The energy as I made my way to the theatre felt like the first waves of a tequila shot: elation; giddiness; and comradery.
Continuing, I saw strangers spark up conversations with strangers and groups intermingle becoming one. A spontaneous laugh would ripple through the crowd exponentially creating more. There was a growing, unspoken intangible unity subtly growing. Maybe it was the distant echo of Washington’s careening saxophone or the chilled fog rolling in from the Pacific or the guy gifting pre-made plastic bowls of chips and guac but, with all these spontaneous ingredients, I had a premonition that what I was about to see and experience wasn’t going to be just some run of the mill mid-week show.
Finding our seats, admiring the wide berth of the stage, the pristine white columns, the pit and the seats that fanned outward from it, I couldn’t help but call connection to the original function of a Greek amphitheater. The space has always been a function of politics, of performance, and of the sharing of ideas where, whoever has the privilege of taking it, has the responsibility to speak one’s truth to the best of their ability. Not only for oneself but, for the progression of society.
I observed the smiling, open faces of the crowd as Washington swayed and rolled in his tan and beige power suit through “Rhythm Changes” from his album Epic. After a sharp cut, Washington took the mic.
“This next one is called Truth. Halfway through it’s got 5 different harmonies all playing at the same time because, as in music and as in life, in this time where there seems to be nothing but hate and division, we must remember it’s our responsibility as people of this earth to work to come together to make something beautiful.”
The crowd, in a not so silent eruption, cheered in agreeance.
Washington finished with his raucous “Fist of Fury” and night fell, leaving us in musical purgatory.
Then, Sylvan Esso took the stage with nothing but darkness, light, and their music.
Opening with their track “Sound,” I was first struck by how powerful Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn were. They were closer to the sound of a harmonious, electric freight train or rocket engine than just a synth keyboard and a single vocalist. Immediately, the crowd came back together and that unity I’d felt earlier seemed to blanket us all. Meath commanded the stage as she ran from one end to the other, the wild, beating white, lavender, tangerine, and blue lights bursting in synch with her arcing voice. It wasn’t all mic thrusts, hair twirls, and thriller poses though. There was also a playful, soft graciousness about her. At one point she stopped the show to express her admiration and love for The Bay Area.
“You guys are so lucky,” she laughed. “I went shopping the other day and I was happily shocked to discover you guys had a whole section devoted to eggplants…North Carolina doesn’t have that! You all are so lucky!”
A few tracks later, Meah had us all howl in unison, reigniting Washington’s words of unity.
Sanborn before the track “Hey Mami” appropriately noted that his mother was in the audience.
These moments allowed for a special kind of bond to form throughout their set. As Meah danced beside Sanborn’s arching silhouette and head bobbing, I felt they were as excited if not more so to be playing for us than we were hearing them. At points, this joy transcended to a place where I felt I was as much a part of the track as they were and, from the amazing light show that lit every face red, blue, and green during their encore, I knew I was not the only one.
Closing with “Play it Right,” dipping in out of the deep baritone reverberating under Meah’s silver metallic vocals, the subtext of the song struck me as such a simple yet so far unattainable task in this time where truth and empathy lay ravaged on the chopping block.
“Be good to each other,” Meah said as “Play It Right“ boomed to a close and exited the stage.
A simple truth I realized as we exited back into the fray of reality, the stars guiding us as a hangnail moon renewed the night sky, one that we as a nation and a global people should work every day to keep alive.
Photo credit Lindsey Kennedy and Meow Wolf