Mokai At The Top Of His Game

I went to Mokai‘s CD “Release Party”, that is, a performance in honour of the release of his new CD, “Any Distraction’ll Do“.

A little history is perhaps useful here?

Mokai and I go way back, back to a time when we supported each other’s antics in protecting old growth forests and stopping nuclear missle launches. We’ve both crawled through a fair amount of poison oak in the service of a greater good. And we’re survivors of long, often tedious consensus meetings. Sure, we’d play a song or two together over the campfire at a direct action encampment. I knew he sang pretty well.

A couple of years after this intense period, we realized that each of us was a serious musician trying to hone his craft. Mokai’s craft was an interesting blend of blues fingerpicking, ethnic styles that he’d picked up on his travels (did I tell you he speaks at least 4 languages fluently?), and his original songs. At the time, I was struggling with singing and thought that he “sang like an angel”.

I’m guessing that the attraction for him to me was that I’d worked professionally with some major blues and rock artists and was regularly gigging jazz? Anyway, he wanted to learn something about jazz harmony and I had the information.

Over the years, it’s been fun to watch my friend perfect his work. Since those heady political days, his songs have gotten tighter and a lot more personally emotional, even when they’re charged with political intent. And that’s the way I like to imbibe my political messages. Polemic rants really don’t get to me anymore.

Mokai has been honing his vocal delivery, too. What I hear is a fine baritone voice with good command of the upper register. But Mokai has developed a way of singing recently that’s also truer to his blues roots. I hear those blues micro-tones coming through. Did I mention that he’s always had a way with melodies supported by quirky, clever harmonies just on the folk side of jazzy? And he typically manages to make use of some of the special qualities of the guitar, like close intervals in the octave just below middle C; these always sound so pretty on an acoustic guitar. If one can work in an open ringing string, it’s guitar-sound heaven; it’s Mokai’s signature. I learned it from him.

Hopefully, you’ve got the picture? Mokai’s new CD is filled with these stylistic gems.

Last night at The Subterrainean Arthouse in Berkely, Mokai held court. This is an artist at the very pinnacle of his performance. The arc of the songs in the set were well chosen; taking us on a ride, song to song. His singing rang out, the melodies clear and bright, singable choruses, lyrics easily understood, guitar playing at a phenomenal highpoint, everything well practiced, fluid, smooth.

It’s been fun to watch this coming, the struggles to find the right balance in song writing, in harmonization and arrangement, to build a convincing performance style. Gone is the angry teenage polemicist in love with revolutionary reggae (sorry, Mok’, but there it is). Now is the time of the mature, original artist who can blend the accessible with the fresh and surprising.

My two complaints, and these are a small ones: After Mokai added a stand up bass and second guitar for backup, the other guitarist was too loud and covered up Mokai’s solo work. I had to strain to hear Mokai’s guitar. Too bad, as what I did hear was more excellence.

The show started an hour and 20 minutes late and I simply could not stay awake any longer. Sorry, Mokai. My leaving had nothing to do with the performance and everything to do with being exhausted.

If you like singer-song writers, original acoustic music, or fingerpicking guitar, go see a Mokai show. You won’t be disappointed. And, you’ll get to see an artist at the very top of his game.



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