Hypnotic Brass Ensemble | Live Review

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As the night progresses the mood gets even livelier, evoking an old school-block party vibe.

When I first arrive at the Bridewell Complex, with its crumbling interior, makeshift bar and the majority of the crowd wrapped up in winter coats, I feel as though I have been teleported to a warehouse party somewhere in Berlin, a sensation which continues as I enter the main room to hear local Bristol DJ Typesun spinning a set of spacey, minimal house.

The venue has switched at the last minute from the Old Fire Station on the opposite side of the building, to the Old Court Rooms, complete with ancient wooden panelling and stalls overlooking the floor. No Go Stop! (formerly Bristol Afrobeat Project) have to squeeze all of their twelve members on to what is possibly the narrowest stage I have ever seen. Rather than allowing this to be a hindrance, however, the limitations of the space seem to amplify their skills: wedged in shoulder to shoulder, the band is still incredibly tight, their breaks immaculate. But then any band attempting to play Afrobeat wouldn’t get away with it without an exceptional rhythm section at it’s core. It isn’t the easiest of genres to work with, overshadowed as it is by the legacy of Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti. Yet with their precise beats, funky horns and the melodious vocals of singer Marie Lister, they pull it off brilliantly.

Early on in the night it is still cold enough for the trumpet player to be wearing gloves, yet the band glide between tempos and time signature changes effortlessly, one of the percussionists breaking into an impromptu djembe solo in the second track. The group play some of the material from their forthcoming album Agbara Orin including the sprawling ‘My Mother, House of Tradition’, a track which extends to about fifteen minutes, in time-honoured Afrobeat style.

As the band depart the stage and more and more people stream in, it becomes clear what a ludicrous choice of venue it is. As Hypnotic Brass Ensemble arrive, I am already being pummelled on all sides by the vast numbers of people squeezing themselves into the room. It seems like every inch of space is covered; punters seemingly spreading from the floor and up the walls.

The eight-piece let loose their dense, cinematic brass sound, shot through with flutters of trumpet improvisation, reminding us that the band – all sons of Chicago trumpet player Phil Cohran, who played with Sun Ra in the 1950’s – are deeply rooted in jazz traditions. Yet their popularity stems from their ability to leap between genres, bridging the gaps between jazz, funk and hip hop, and making them favoured collaborators with artists such as Erykah Badu, Wu-Tang Clan and former Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen. Many of their tracks are stripped back, the horns retreating to leave drums, vocals, and the new addition of electric bass to get the crowd moving. By the time they break into their track ‘Kryptonite’, it’s clear that their main intention for the evening is not to hypnotise the audience but to send them into some kind of frenzy.

Like No Go Stop!, the band don’t let the restrictions of the stage impede them. Perhaps their origins as buskers on the Chicago subway has given them the ability to improvise with whatever spaces they find themselves in. Several band members, stripped to the waist, replace their horns with mics, clamber on to the monitors at the front of the stage, and spit rhymes at the crowd. As the night progresses the mood gets even livelier and more raucous, evoking an old school-block party vibe.

The set approaches its climax, with the track ‘War’ – made popular through the film version of the Hunger Games – but not before one of the band has finished dancing with a woman he has hauled on to the stage while two others finish off with a bit of crowd-surfing. The audience then wander off, elevated and rowdy, fully prepared for the after-party ahead.

Check out ‘Kryptonite’ right here: