Femi Kuti outshines the Wailers at the Zoo

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Walking to the amphitheater of the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley takes you past a fleet of boats made in the glossy likeness of giant swans. Beyond this surreal sight, a bridge brings you to what appears to be, what feels like, an island. If you're late, as we were last night to see Femi Kuti, then the music invites you across the water, like the sun, and echoes out as far as the outer parking lot. "You're late, you're late," cried Femi's alto sax in the sky, as we headed for his island. On Femi's island, all the men wear green tie-died tops and bottoms, blending in with the vines and water behind them. The women where red and yellow strings of beads sewn to make percussive sounds with every shake of the ass. On this island, the men play, and the women sing and dance. The women also wear tops with red dots on the nipples, like go-go dancers. In the audience, women and men differentiate themselves more casually, but with a similar disparity in willingness to get down. Hippies and hipsters groove in front of the stage, with smatterings of (judging from their accents) Africans dancing in the stands, mostly women and their male admirers. There are children running around, some dancing, too. On the side of the amphitheater, a police officer looks out at the crowd, arms crossed, presumably on pot watch. In case you're wondering why I call Femi by his first name, this is a Prince/Madonna situation coupled with a father/son differentiation to be made: To quote the liner notes of a new two-CD set, Femi Kuti: The Definitive Collection (Wrasse Records), "Femi is the undisputed inheritor of the genius of Nigerian Afro-beat [a.k.a. Afrobeat] superstar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti," better known simply as Fela, his late father. I don't know about "undisputed," but I've made the case before for Femi's talents as a more pop and concise version of Dad's trance-funk, and as the most charismatic living spokesman for the earth-forsaken city of Lagos. A bit older now (I last saw him melt down First Avenue in 2000), he growls more than he used, his whisper-to-a-soul-shout approach as human and quirky and compelling as ever. When his band blasts a horn chart, he shakes his head, as if his lips were directing the music, and the drummer grows more aggressive on the floor tom and cymbal. Femi's Afrobeat update isn't just shorter and hookier, but also leaner and more rock and roll. The showstopper remains "Beng Beng Beng," his fuck song, though its explicitness is cloaked in Nigerian English. (Is "I say everything dey correct order" a boast about smooth talking? Or something Rain Man would assert in bed?) But there's no mistaking Femi's vocal riffing on the phrase "Don't come too fast," perhaps cut slightly short in the presence of kids, when the singer exhorted the crowd to "jump" (they immediately obliged). "Salvation comes from within," Femi sang near the end, as a young woman in a hip-hop-looking two-piece took a photo with her cell phone. It was over too quickly. But then, not only do Zoo shows begin promptly at 7:30 p.m., but Femi was (bizarrely), booked as the evening's opener, not headliner. After an intermission, and an introduction saying the band dates back to 1963, the Wailers (as in Bob Marley and the) took the stage, and it was instantly obvious that at least a couple members hadn't been alive in 1963. Whatever the Wailers' current lineup is, they don't advertise it on their MySpace page or website, probably because there are only a few actual Wailers onboard: bassist and Hippy Boys founder Aston "Family Man" Barrett, who was with Marley since the '60s, and '74-81 guitarists Junior Marvin and Al Anderson. If I-Threes singer and vocal legend Marcia Griffiths took the stage, I missed it—we cut out after a few songs. Without the intricate mid-'70s arrangements that made them special, the Wailers sounded like any old reggae band, with a loud, tinny, keyboard-led one-drop sound, fronted in this case by an unannounced Bob Marley immitator who looked like Benicio Del Toro dressed as Che Guevara. Not bad, but nowhere near Femi. "Stir It Up" followed us out to the parking lot as the twilight lingered.

 
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