Gig Review: Fantastic Negrito @ Thekla
by Ben Podmore
Fantastic Negrito, long-time musician Xavier Dphrepaulezz’s (dee-FREP-ah-lez) latest incarnation, fully lived up to his stage name on the night, delivering a spectacularly intense and complex performance which was both exciting and thoughtful to an enthusiastic audience at Bristol’s Thekla. Following on from support act Miraculous Mule’s thumping blues rock, Dphrepaulezz strode onto the stage in front of his five-piece band with the relaxed manner of someone totally at ease with the upcoming show, casually sipping from a mug which could have contained water, coffee, or whisky, any one of which would have fitted his life-affirming, energising, and intoxicating musical style.
The set began with a medley of ‘Bad Guy Necessity’ from the upcoming album Please Don’t Be Dead, which transitioned into the 2014 single ‘Nobody Makes Money’. The songs were captivatingly performed, and as they went on most of the issues with the sound were dealt with by Dphrepaulezz in his own characteristically charismatic way, making sure that he got the right amount of organ (a lot of organ) from his keys player. Technical issues aside, with the political content of the songs ranging from the peculiar human psychology of feeling the need to find someone to blame your problems on or worse being manipulated by institutional power into doing so, to the increasing economic divide between rich and poor and the idea of wage slavery, Fantastic Negrito brought a mixture of important and topical issues facing society into his set to a dramatic, eclectic, and virtuosic musical backing.
"Fantastic Negrito fully lived up to his stage name on the night, delivering a spectacularly intense and complex performance which was both exciting and thoughtful to an enthusiastic audience at Bristol’s Thekla."
The show continued with a mixture of new and old material which came off without a hitch except maybe for that of Dphrepaulezz’s trousers (sorry I mean pants) as he danced coolly around what quickly began to feel like a small stage for such a larger-than-life figure. Or perhaps he only appeared larger-than-life because as an artist he is willing to express so many personal and political sentiments people usually shy away from in their lives and careers, thinking about it that way seems to invert the impression and suggest that an apathetic and apolitical life is a shrunken existence. Whatever the case may, be the band went on with intermittent showy interludes from Dphrepaulezz, including a genuinely funny description of the myth of the existence of such a beast before launching into ‘Honest Man’. Not even a broken guitar (or the equipment supporting it) could slow them down for long, while strong personality and showmanship kept things feeling smooth. Even the classic gig banter contrasting British and American society played well, felt stark, and had the added element of a Tennessean group in the audience on the boat (for anyone who hasn’t been Thekla is a venue on an old cargo ship!).
Seemingly everything you can easily read online about Fantastic Negrito makes a point of noting how his music combines so many of the styles created in black America over the last century or more, and while it feels almost like a cliché to make that point it was important enough for Dphrepaulezz to talk about during his performance, so I feel justified writing about it here. Although the Prince-inspired (he taught himself to play after hearing Prince’s album Dirty Talk as a way of getting away from hustling) musician channels the legendary musician’s stage presence, there was also material in his set ranging from an adapted version of the traditional American folk song popularised by Lead Belly as ‘Where Did Sleep Last Night’ retitled ‘In the Pines (Oakland)’, to the cock (or should that be cock ring) out rock of ‘Plastic Hamburgers’ which evoked Lenny Kravitz and Rage Against the Machine. Fantastic Negrito’s material draws on the multitude of musical histories available in the 21st century, this is music as it has the potential to be now: important, relevant, and inclusive.
The gig finished after an encore featuring ‘The Duffler’, another song from the upcoming album Please Don’t Be Dead due for release later this month, which hints at the artist’s troubled yet fascinating past. In this song and his wider work Fantastic Negrito transforms himself into his music, or his music into himself, either way he (and his band) are totally captivating performers who are stunning on record but even more so live.