Balkan Beat Box at Lincoln Hall | Live review
The house music at Lincoln Hall was, in fact, House music. Typically, the club pipes a soundtrack of upcoming LH performers over the PA in between sets, but Balkan Beat Box comandeered the sound system, and we were all happier for it. Everyone on the dance floor was already moving to the bass, abandoning all inhibitions well ahead of schedule. Nearly everyone, that is, except for the Charlie Brown–faced, emo kid with a mohawk in the balcony.
Technically a three-piece comprised of vocalist-percussionist Tomer Yosef, drummer Tamir Muskat and sax player Ori Kaplan, the NYC group layers its albums with beats, horns and enough guest vocalists that I wondered if the band could pull it off live. In short, they can. And how.
Yosef quickly emerged as the frontman, harnessing the energy of the crowd with an undeniably visceral performance. Wearing a black wifebeater, the MC looked like a less buff but more manic Enrique Inglesias. And he kicked ass. At one point, he thrust a water bottle through his legs from behind and proceeded to spray the audience. It was about as NC-17 as American gigs get. Air-humping made its way into the set as well, with a monitor repurposed as a mattress. Many women were moved, or at least appeared to be. Closing with the crowd-pleaser "Bulgarian Chicks" in the encore, the oompa-powered outfit invited some of the more rhythmic ladies in attendance—and one hairy dude—on stage to dance. Even on the floor, everyone in the audience felt like part of the show.
Guitarist Ron Bunker stood out with surf riffs echoing Dick Dale and East Bay Ray, flavored with Middle Eastern and klezmer melodies that practically insisted the crowd move. The booty shaking only intensified when Yosef and Muskat began a percussion duel, summoning anyone with a sense of rhythm. At one point, I realized I was standing next to one of my college professors from a couple years back, and we were both weirded out. Then she told me the Beat Box is her favorite band, and I replied that it was skyrocketing into my top ten. It was awesome.
On the train ride home from the show, I reconnected with a Ukrainian dude I'd met earlier in the evening when my friends and I directed him to the venue. Our second encounter was one of those quasi-fated, "trippy" moments. Still wiping sweat off my brow from the raucous, Roma-powered dance party, I asked him if Balkan Beat Box was popular in the Ukraine. He said no, and that he'd only heard of the band because he was Jewish. When he asked how I knew of its music, I told him that a rather devout Jewish friend of mine had turned me on to the group. That culture seems to be the common bond in the band's eclectic repertoire, and the depth of those roots are on full display live.
If BBB is world music, it's in the most literal sense—not because it comes from a relatively exotic area, but because it can move anyone in the world. These grooves are born of a particular people, but not confined to that corner of the globe. Lincoln Hall may have well been a nightclub anywhere in the world from where I stood, which was a beautiful thing.