Review: KCRW Presents Natacha Atlas at the Conga Room, November 3, 2010

Just a few words. Why so little? I haven’t the heart.

This is my first show at The Conga Room near the NYC/Vegas wannabe bright light sector of the new Downtown across from the Staples Center. I kill time before the show eating, uh, “chicken lollipops” at Wolfgang Puck. Then suffer a modest wait. I’d say 75 were in line for will call. Some, ahem, idiot tries to enter with an expired license, and to the bouncers credit he all but makes jokes until the tension dissolves. Upstairs in the main hall are one, two, three bars, a variety of couchified soft areas for non-VIP, and a general admission little white chairs area thirty rows deep. Plenty of time for jalapeno popcorn.

It opens. Momo Loudiyi and his all-star band from everywhere perform “Loud Oasis”, which is like Berber music with Arab overtones. Momo is a friendly, very spiritually outspoken guitarist with a soft, gravelly, rather underwhelming voice. I’m sorry, Momo. Your voice isn’t really “enough” for Arabic music. I feel the energy and heart, and appreciate your most excellent rapport. But they raise a mightier roar, the ones you chose from across North Africa and beyond to back you up. Band member Miles Jay, for example. Opens this show with a truly somber, well executed bass solo, haunted strange tuning, intense trills, the soulful vibratos of Arab bowing technique. Then a lively and confident Algerian woman named Fella plays the greatest live doumbek I’ve ever seen live, and sings an Arabic wail called “Oum Kulthoum” that rouses cries and ululations from the gathering world music crowd. We want more from her.

After intermission, KCRW introduces Natacha Atlas, and she sits down with her band under the hot lights looking like she’s seventy years old. I’m waiting for the belly-dancing, Horus eyeliner goddess to become the thing… and it never happens. She’s nervous. She shoots the band looks that could kill, adjusts her mic obsessively, fumbles her sheet music, confers with the gaffer. Sings perfectly but unconvincingly, like a woman getting through it with a broken heart. And she doesn’t get off that little chair until the very last song. All we hope for, the energetic Middle Eastern chanteuse that defines her repertoire and her career with her emotive and unrestrained outpourings, is lost to this awkward, rambling lounge performance that sucks energy out of the room. At one point, she shushes us. 250 people begin a slow trickle out. Those that stay talk loudly and defiantly about what could be gong wrong. I couldn’t bear it, but I stayed until the end.

Seeking intel on what was up. Please advise.

Live reference photo from previous performance from Rhapsody