REVIEW: Sylvan Esso and Kamasi Washington paint with different brushes in Berkeley

Sylvan Esso, Amelia Meath

Photos: Norm de Veyra

BERKELEY — On its current tour, North Carolina electro-pop and dance duo Sylvan Esso is sharing the stage with several handfuls of different artists. While most of the openers fit into the indie rock or pop mold, Berkeley fans were given a special treat Thursday with Grammy-winning jazz impresario Kamasi Washington.

The two acts couldn’t be more different, which likely confused some fans of the headliners, who packed the Greek Theatre to near-capacity. Kamasi Washington and his band, the Next Step, were a clamor of sound, often playing multiple complex melodies simultaneously, incorporating Washington’s sax with stand-up bass, keys, more brass and two drummers. Sylvan Esso, consisting of vocalist producer Nick Sanborn and frontwoman Amelia Meath, emphasized minimalism and restraint. There were no instruments on stage; only Sanborn’s console.

Somehow, Sylvan Esso and Kamasi Washington made it make sense.

Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington performs at The Greek Theatre in Berkeley on July 12, 2018.

The headliners took the stage just past 9 p.m., performing in front of a backdrop of chevron-like LED elements. With nothing but the production console on stage, that left room for plenty of lighting, and Sylvan Esso made good use of the space. The show began with Sanborn fiddling with the knobs, creating a repetitive crackling sound, to which Meath followed and kicked into the slow-building “Sound.”

“Are you ready to feel your feelings?” Meath asked fans, to growing applause.

“Could I Be,” off the duo’s 2014 self-titled album, followed. During this song, and on many others, the two danced in silhouette, casting their colorful shadows across the stage. “Could I Be” also prompted the first of several singalongs. Any time Meath would stick the microphone above her head, fans knew to finish the line.

“This collection of cities has always felt like home,” Sanborn said, thanking fans.

The duo played close to 20 songs over the next 90 minutes, covering new cuts like “Just Dance,” off 2017’s What Now, and older tracks like “Dress.” Meath’s sandpaper voice (interestingly, she doesn’t sound like this on-record, so perhaps she was nursing a cold) provided a bit of edge to the otherwise melodic songs.

She introduced “Signal,” as “a song about seeing what’s in front of you and being able to figure out what to do with it.” The new track transitioned into another, the 8-bit tinged ’80s electronica candy “Die Young.” Sylvan Esso followed that up with “Jamie’s Song” and “Coffee,” from the 2014 record.

“My baby does the hanky panky/ My baby does,” fans’ voice nearly overtook Meath’s on the refrain.

Every few songs, the duo would stop to tell stories about their lives. A highlight came when Meath talked about going hiking earlier in the day with her cousin, who, from her description, likely took her to Tilden Park.

“She said it was hazy; I thought it looked amazing,” Meath said. The two later went to Berkeley Bowl, and mushroom-buying—Meath was apparently blown away by Berkeley’s availability of so many different types.

Sylvan Esso

Sylvan Esso performs at The Greek Theatre in Berkeley on July 12, 2018.

Kamasi Washington also told stories, but they were more about big-picture topics rather than himself.

“The coolest thing about traveling is everyone speaks a different language and wears different clothes,” Washington said of his love of touring. “Just because we’re different doesn’t mean we can’t be one. Diversity is not something to be tolerated. It’s something to be celebrated.”

That story preceded “Truth,” the closer off his 2017 EP, Harmony of Difference.

The song featured five different melodies played at the same time, Washington said; an example of how differences can thrive.

“Truth” began as a plaintive rumination, led by Washington’s father, Rickey Washington, on flute, and the drumming of Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, Jr. Five minutes in, the song switched to more of an uptempo funk number.

The band couldn’t have played more than a dozen songs over an hour (most were in the eight- to 10-minute range), but it eventually won over the crowd, with their lightning-fast solo-ing and some swagger.

Trombonist Ron Porter starred on “The Rhythm Changes,” while keyboardist Brandon Coleman had the key part on “The Space Travelers Lullaby,” off 2018’s Heaven and Earth. He played a catchy, smooth melody over the cacophony of the other instruments.

“I wrote it for all the space cadets out there,” Washington said of the meditative gallop of a song. Despite leading the band, Kamasi Washington would often cede the spotlight to his talented bandmates, while standing and watching in the middle of the floor.

Washington and his band closed their set with the rousing “Fists of Fury,” which featured not only his fastest saxophone part, but also his more emphatic and intense.

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