December 12, 2009
Great American Music Hall
Better Than: Fool's Gold Loaf, a sandwich Elvis ate 18 months before he died.
Frontman Luke Top has lately extinguished rumors that Fool's Gold is specifically a West Coast highlife ensemble. (Highlife is the speedy, gurgling guitar rhythm originated in Ghana.) A band with as many variable members as Fool's Gold pushes beyond a single style, becoming different things at different performances. On Saturday's rainy-night serenade at Great American, the group was more a lounge act for North African moonlight than Gold Coast imposter.
The band appeared as an eight-piece outfit, expanding to nine when joined by trumpeter Stewart Cole (of headliners Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros) and everyone juggled instruments. Brad Caulkins shifted from saxophone to flute to guitar. A keyboardist moved to bongos, then shakers. Top hefted a shaking gourd on at least one number, but mostly stayed with guitar and vocals. He cradled his microphone while singing Hebrew lyrics, wearing a white linen suit and possessing a stage manner like a bandleader from Louis Prima's era. The crowd responded with slow dancing as if after a candlelight dinner. You could almost hear waves paddling as Top cooed, "Poho-sei-i-i-don."
But here and there the guitars rumbled together and unfolded the stomping highlife beat. The musicians and audience would then take form as one, hopping in time with the rocking drum. Caulkins's sax crashes honked precisely in harmony with shimmering guitar rises. When Cole took the stage, his horn met saxophone with sweet trumpet rips.
The sold-out crowd bobbed appreciatively to Fool's Gold's video hit "Surprise Hotel," so it was surprising the band didn't draw more consistently from its African-rhythms pouch. It may well be the mellowness and Mediterranean-candlelight mirage made a more suitable preamble to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' friendly fireside sing-along, which had drawn the packed house.
Fool's Gold ended its set by returning to an up-tempo parade number, with Salvador Plascencia thumping the talking drum. That episode raised the energy level as everyone took their bow. Cole drew down his suspenders and worked the trumpet with a skinny, angular wiggle. They finished that bit by forming a New Orleans-style Second Line and marched backstage with drums and horns still blazing.
Between sets, members of Fool's Gold and the Magnetic Zeros laid down a jam session in the Olive Street alley behind the venue. Cole freestyled his horn with a robed fiddler, as Sharpe frontman Alex Ebert and others watched under the twinkling drizzle. The crying fiddle and brick window ledges set a scene like the Lower East Side a hundred years ago, and might have been the best show of the night.
Personal Bias: I made a habit collecting pyrite, otherwise known as "fool's gold," as a child. I played kickball with pockets full of it.