I rolled into Royal Oak shortly after 9pm, hoping to get there in time to catch the last few songs by opening act Good Old War – a band I’d neither seen nor heard of before. After collecting photo and video credentials from the box office for myself and my assistant/videographer/wife, we made our way into the theater where the opener was over halfway through their 45 minute set. Although I was only able to take in their last three songs, the Pennsylvania trio managed to impress both me and the crowd pressing against the rail. GOW combines indie-rock overtones with folk arrangements and three-part vocal harmonies, reminiscent of some early Avett Brothers numbers. I’ll definitely be making an effort to see these guys again the next time they roll through town.
Following a short break, headliner Xavier Rudd took the stage, accompanied by his new rhythm section, dubbed Izintaba. From the Zulu word for mountain, Izintaba comprises South Africans Tio Moloantoa on bass and percussionist Andile Nqubezelo. Opening with his song Mother off the 2005 album Food In The Belly, Rudd and company brought driving rhythms and the Australian’s masterfully haunting didgeridoo playing once again to the welcoming ears of the Michiganders on hand that night. I’d seen Xavier Rudd play around town on two previous occasions, both at St. Andrew’s Hall in downtown Detroit. The first time, XR was all solo – just him surrounded by a circle of didgeridoos, pedals for kick drum and effects, high hat, hand drums, and an Australian-made, hollow-necked Weissenborn slide-guitar. Seeing all of that sound come from one man – without even a looper – was mind boggling. The second time Rudd was occasionally accompanied by a kit drummer, although the effect was no less impressive.
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This time, however, was something of a different beast altogether. It was my first time seeing XR in a band and not just as a solo musician who is occasionally accompanied. Touring in support of their album Koonyum Sun, released last April, Xavier Rudd and Izintaba managed to transform Rudd’s earlier work into a newer spirit, more in line with the arrangements off the new album. Although this meant that some songs had more intense, complicated percussion and rhythm arrangements, others had a simpler, folk music quality that incorporated aboriginal vocal and percussion elements . Although there were plenty of numbers that had the few hundred folks in the room dancin and shakin, others were far more gentle, almost contemplative numbers. This was hardly surprising given the ever-growing emphasis that Xavier Rudd seems to place on his spirituality in his song writing. However, in comparison to the insanely coordinated, intense, and more hard-driving songs and performances of prior years, Saturday night left me wanting just a bit less of the folk songs and more infectious grooves accompanied by jaw-dropping musicianship. Which is not to say that Rudd, Moloantoa or Nqubezelo gave anything but stellar performances – just that I was hoping to have more danceable tunes than were on the set. Simply put, all three musicians were great to watch as Moloantoa alternated between 4- and 6-string electric bass guitars and Nqubezelo moved from drum kit to various hand drums. Althoguh Rudd’s vocals were as strong as ever, his increasing popularity was apparent from the amount of sing-along vocals he inspired in the crowd. Although the ROMT was a bigger room than St. Andrews and the concentration of crowd energy was diluted in the room at less-than-half capacity, the mix of young-to-middle-aged suburbanites seemed to only appreciate more space to dance and enjoy the show.