In the mid 90s, I became enamored with a compilation CD that I had stumbled upon called Groovin High, Vol. 1., which introduced me to the serene and spacey yet rhythmic sounds of trip-hop. Delving into this newfound genre which captivated me with its laid-back, funky jams, I discovered a new world of downtempo music, which included a more synth-driven version of dub, the instrumental, psychedelic subgenre of reggae music which I already had an affinity for.
This foray into chillout music eventually led to an appreciation for more upbeat forms of electronica. Admittedly, however, I was quite particular about the artists I listened to. I never got into trance or techno, for example, but I loved the more melodic sounds of big beat from acts such as Groove Armada, Apollo 440 and Propellerheads.
On a few occasions, I ventured into New York City to experience live performances of some of my favorite artists at the time, including Fatboy Slim, Lo Fidelity Allstars and The Crystal Method. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing highly danceable music blaring from state-of-the-art sound systems with thousands of others in a jubilant rave-like atmosphere, but from a performance perspective, it was largely underwhelming as it basically consisted of men standing on stage twiddling knobs. Sure, the artists riled up the crowd even more by accentuating climactic moments with exaggerated gestures, but while I appreciated the showmanship, I had to laugh at this attempt to emulate live musical performance by men who manipulate machines instead of playing instruments. Such is the nature of EDM.
Of all the downtempo artists I had been introduced to, one surely stood high above all others: the Washington D.C./Brooklyn collective known as Thievery Corporation. Thievery Corp started out as a production duo, Eric Hilton and Rob Garza, who excelled in making sonic dreamscapes encapsulating acid jazz, hip-hop, bossa nova, dub and reggae with elements of Indian and Middle Eastern music. (It was my predilection toward reggae music that lead me to them during this time period as I had detailed in this earlier interview with Eric Hilton.)
I had always considered Thievery Corp strictly a studio artist as I had been listening to them for a number of years before I first got to see them perform in person. Excited to see how Hilton and Garza’s music translated to the stage, my expectations were nevertheless tempered based on the aforementioned previous experiences with electronic acts.
Man, was I in for a surprise.
I recall the awe I felt upon seeing Thievery for the first time many years ago, as Hilton and Garza had put together a supremely skillful ensemble to bring their studio music to life. Over the years, they have continued to be one of the most dynamic and energetic live acts someone could ever hope to see. Time and again, they absolutely blow me away, most recently at the start of their extensive Babylon Falling tour at The Rooftop at Pier 17, an amazing NYC venue located in the famous South Street Seaport area of lower Manhattan.
The evening temperature on Friday, October 11 hovered around a crisp 60 degrees. A robust breeze billowed through the white pop-up tents that covered the venue’s food and beverage stands, continually moving the clouds along and allowing an almost full hunter’s moon to cast its milky light down upon the adjacent East River. The lights of Brooklyn sparkled across the water as the magnificent bridge named for the borough soared through the backdrop.
After a fun, spirited, nu-disco set from Brooklyn artist, Escort, the crowd exuded a palpable excitement as Thievery took the stage. Like a ship carefully pushing off the dock, they eased into the show with a trippy lullaby from The Cosmic Game album, “Marching the Hate Machines (Into the Sun).”
From here, they segued into “All That We Perceive,” a smooth groove off their 3rd and much beloved LP, 2002’s The Richest Man in Babylon, with luscious vocals by Argentinian Natalia Clavier.
Next, Thievery kept the chill vibes going with the dubby reggae track from which the tour derives its name, “Babylon Falling,” from their 2017 album, The Temple of I & I. As reggae music has always been a huge influence on the Thievery creative output, Hilton and Garza went down to Port Antonio, Jamaica, to record Temple, recruiting local vocal talent to cement that Jamaican flavor. Their sessions in Jamaica produced so much good music that they released a second sister album, 2018’s Treasures from the Temple, consisting of remixes from the previous album as well as additional original music. The singing on “Babylon Falling,” however, is handled by longtime Thievery collaborator, St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.-born Christopher “Puma” Smith, who never fails to elevate any track he contributes to.
Reggae music has always rebelled against the “shitstem” (system) that keeps the common people down, helps the rich get richer and the powerful become invincible. While this group of woke artists did their part in expressing that sentiment, a feeling which I shared, I couldn’t help but note the irony as I marveled at the immense, candescent skyscrapers towering above us. While providing what I perceived as an appealing vista, these monoliths served as homes to prosperous corporations and the filthy rich that run them. As the music washed over me, my wandering mind contemplated who lived in those spectacular penthouses and how they ever became so ridiculously wealthy to exist so high above most others in every way.
Next, culling another song from the same album, Thievery upped the tempo with “Letter to the Editor,” with vocals delivered inna rapid-fire danchehall stylee by newcomer Racquel Jones. Jones had made a strong impression on Hilton and Garza during their Port Antonio sessions, and they not only chose her as vocalist for several tracks but have brought her on tour as well. This former Miss Jamaica contestant may be a model who now sings for an internationally-adored troupe of stylish merry-makers, but the AK-47 tattoo that runs the length of her forearm is a sobering reminder of the violence that has permeated Jamaican culture.
Keeping the upbeat pace, Thievery brought out their resident rapper, Mr. Lif, for the awesome title track of their 2011 album, Culture of Fear. Led by a driving bassline delivered by a blue jumpsuit-clad Ashish “Hash” Vyas high-stepping around the stage with his jet-black hair blowing behind him, the hard-hitting rocker disparages the United States government’s quest to keep the populace living in constant fear, whether it be from terrorists, disease, or bankruptcy. Amen. Let’s get a group together to camp out in front of the White House and Pentagon blasting this song 24/7. Who’s with me?
After three straight anti-establishment tracks, the band shifted gears both sonically and thematically, bringing out longtime singer LouLou Ghelichkhani to sing the gentle hymn, “Omid-Hope.” Sang beautifully in flowing Persian over a loungy beat with cascading new-agey keys courtesy of Rob Garza, the lyrics are essentially a prayer for a happier, more fulfilling life.
From here, Thievery returned to fighting the power with my favorite original track from their latest Treasures from the Temple album, a slinky, head-nodding trip-hop track, “History.” Sung by Mr. Lif with a little help from Puma, the song speaks to the African-American experience in America. Mr. Lif pulls no punches delivering lyrics like these:
I can’t be black without historic, systematic oppression
I can’t look at a cop without second guessing
These are confessions of the heaviness & stress I hold daily
The punishment for slave rebellion back then
was to limit education for black women and black men…
Look at the current costs of education…
Continuing with their righteous message, Puma next led the band on an exceptional dub tune, the velvety “Amerimacka.” Paced by skanking keys reminiscent of Inner Circle’s famous “Bad Boys,” the theme song from the long-running reality series, Cops, Puma conveyed poetic, thought-provoking lyrics like:
The land of the free built on slavery
Our consciousness in captivity
The promised land is the lion’s den
Your culture of greed has got to end
Amerimacka, oh what a beautiful life
Amerimacka, is like licking honey off a knife
Picking up the pulse again, multilingual vocalist LouLou returned to the stage to lead the disco meets prog-rock “Voyage Libre,” this time using her glorious voice to sing in French.
From here the band turned to a new bandleader, percussionist Frank Orrall, who emerged from behind his kit to sing lead on “The Heart’s a Lonely Hunter,” the studio version of which had been sung by Talking Heads front man, David Byrne. With Rob Garza now delivering the prominent percussion, Orrall traversed the stage singing over a vigorous rhythm punctuated by lively bursts of brass. As the song wound down to its conclusion, Orrall stood still front and center, swinging his microphone which had become illuminated with a bright light in wide loops over the crowd, gradually reeling it in and tightening its revolution until the device returned to his grip.
Continuing their momentum, Puma, Natalia and Racquel all joined Mr. Lif to lead a blazing “Fight to Survive,” an EDM-fusion banger from The Temple of I & I. You would have to be dead not to feel invigorated by multiple vocalists passionately singing:
This is a fight to survive
This is a fight to try to thrive
This is a fight for you and I
A fight for getting by
A fight to feel alive
As I bobbed my head up and down and sang along enthusiastically, I took these words to heart and thought of how difficult this life can be. Some of us are fighting disease. Some are fighting economic depravity. Some are fighting the system while some fight the government. Some are fighting racism, some are fighting ageism, and some are fighting sexism. Some are fighting bullies. Some are fighting depression and anxiety. Some are fighting competitors. Some are fighting inertia. Some are fighting stigmas. Some are fighting wars. And some of us are fighting for basic human rights. Everyone has their battles, and this song is for all of us.
Continuing their fire without pause, Thievery then launched into the balls-out “Warning Shots.” Everyone on stage bounced, bent and stomped with zeal as Mr. Lif and Puma’s aggressive toasting incited the crowd to jump up and thrust fists into the air. The entire entourage gyrated in perpetual motion like a feeding frenzy of tiger sharks. The ever-present autumn wind swirled the smoke-effects through ripples of varying color from the stage lights and felt cool upon my now sweaty face. The combination of the music, the energy, the visuals and mother nature filled me with fervor and gave me goosebumps.
Listening to this song again as I drove along a rural highway in central Pennsylvania this past week, I relived the moment and suddenly realized I was approaching Formula 1 speeds. “Warning Shots” has that kind of intensity, and the performance had a lasting impact.
With the crowd roaring its approval, the band expressed mutual thanks with a wave and left the stage. While I have been accustomed to Thievery ending shows on a high-energy note, I initially felt a bit puzzled that the performance was ending already. I chalked it up to a hefty dose of cannabis possibly clouding my sense of time, but moments later they returned with Garza taking the mic to announce that for the first time ever, they would be doing a live acoustic set.
The band sat together center stage while Natalia and LouLou traded off vocals for three lovely ballads, “Claridad,” “Le Coeur” and “Meu Destino,” which I believe were sung in Spanish, French and Portuguese, respectively. Three straight songs sung in three different European languages exemplifies the international appeal of these global celebrities.
After a brief changing of instruments, Thievery kicked off the home stretch of the performance with their other female lead taking the reigns again, Racquel Jones. She sang “Roadblock,” a straightforward, roots reggae track with a heavy drum beat, rich with flurries of brass.
Maintaining a similar tempo, LouLou replaced Racquel for the massively adored “Sweet Tides,” igniting a sequence of three straight crowd favorites to close the show. With horns laying down a lush background, this chill-inducing, heavenly love song had the audience singing along with heart. Long one of my favorites, for the first time I heard the song not as a sparse berceuse, but with layers of thick instrumentation, as almost a shoegazer rock song.
Finally, to wrap up an amazing gift to fans, Thievery ended the show with two of their most quintessential songs, “Lebanese Blond” and “The Richest Man in Babylon.”
A significant element of the Thievery vibe is the use of the sitar, which provides major texture to “Lebanese Blond.” The long, stringed, Indian instrument is typically played while seated, and guitarist Rob Myers enthralled audiences by picking masterfully while sitting cross-legged on a platform like an enlightened guru. This rich song encapsulates all elements of Thievery music: a wicked bassline that serves as the backbone to almost every Thievery track, on-point drumming from Jeff Franca, vigorous percussion thanks to Frank Orrall, Garza’s ethereal synth and/or keys heightening the vibes, exuberant brass and sultry singing.
Speaking of sultry singing, Puma took the lead for the show’s final number and sang:
There is no guidance in your kingdom
Your wicked walk in Babylon
There is no wisdom to your freedom
The richest man in Babylon
Pointing to the sky as he sang, I again thought of the monstrous buildings looking down at us, this time imagining that Puma was addressing their inhabitants as a verbal middle finger.
With church having ended, as the sanctified parishioners descended en masse from the rooftop, we demonstrated our approval and gratitude by chanting “Bahdap bop bah…” echoing the vocals and brass riffs in “Lebanese Blond.”
This performance moved me profoundly, perhaps even more than I had expected. Wanting to get the perspective of someone else to see what they thought of the evening, I reached out to my friend, Jesse Zelenko of The Video Kitchen, and asked him what he thought of the show, and what he liked most about it.
“Sick man!” Jesse stated emphatically. “I’d say my highlight was seeing the reactions of friends I brought. Thievery puts on a show that is so unique and seeing people experience that is so dope. I don’t think anyone could go to one of their shows and be disappointed.
Seen. Well said, Jesse.
Thievery gave me a special night that I will never forget, during which I experienced a diverse palette of sensations, thoughts and emotions. While I acknowledge that the band was under time constraints due to the venue’s early curfew, my only hope is that they will one day consider taking a cue from the jam-band scene, where artists typically perform two 60 to 90-minute sets sandwiching an intermission. At this point, their deep catalog warrants it and people deserve to enjoy the magical vibe they are creating a bit longer. What can I say? I want more!