Club d’Elf and their sprawling live records present a unique challenge to folks who write about them. This double Live at Club Helsinki set reveals every modern style and multiple Moroccan rhythms (except for opera and bluegrass—maybe). But often we want so much to relate or explain these sounds, and there’s so much going on in so many different combinations, that our explanations eventually grow so complicated that they lose their soul. Soulless is no way to address this music.
The other challenge reads like a cop-out but it’s nonetheless true: These cats aren’t just musicians, they’re magicians. Good luck explaining magic.
(Very) Loosely directed by drummer Dean Johnston and bassist Mike Rivard (who also has roots in the Boston Pops Orchestra, Either/Orchestra, and Morphine), Helsinki very much suggests Club d’Elf’s version of the Grateful Dead‘s legendary live opus Europe ’72> (Warner Bros.): It spotlights remarkable, genre-bending solos by Rivard (including sintir), John Medeski (piano, keyboards), Duke Levine (guitar), Brahim Fribgane (oud, one of the world’s oldest stringed instruments) and DJ Mister Rourke—but never, ever at the expense of the band’s collective dense, hypnotic grooves.
One disc one, Rivard lays down the melody of “Mogador” then hands it over to Medeski, whose solo on grand piano—a McCoy Tyner meets Michael Garson jazz-rock fusion tempest—is genuinely grand. Next comes a trip through the landscape of “Africa,” which Levine’s guitar colors in country-western twang. Fribgane picks up a South American cajón to steer the band through the Moroccan 12/8 groove “The Booloolu,” and this first set concludes with d’Elf’s trademark “Berber Song,” a traditional from North-West Africa whipped into an electronic frenzy.
On disc two, “Green Screen” upshifts and downshifts through Levine’s crashing chords and concludes with a good ol’ four on the floor psychedelic funk stomp—Buddy Miles introducing the Beastie Boys to Jimi Hendrix.
“Zeed Al Maal” sounds like the Jerry Garcia Band happily meandering through a Moroccan desert and enjoying the trip. Rivard learned this song from a revered leader of the Gwana mystical brotherhood of trance- healers, and shares it on the Moroccan sintir (camel skin-covered bass lute) as a freedom jazz dance with Thomas Workman’s flute. Levine’s guitar sounds like it wobbles into the thick trip-hop of “Power Plant” from an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, then Medeski jumps in on organ to swing Booker T. Jones soul chords up into the stars.
Live at Club Helsinki closes with a spoken sample from one of the band’s inspirations, Terence McKenna, which also sums up Club d’Elf’s purpose, vision and music: “There is a hidden dimension to reality. Call it a plan, a purpose, a loving god, a cosmos instead of a chaos. And psychedelics, I believe, reveal a greater order than the normal world.”