Makaya McCraven @ Thalia Hall

Sun Jul 11 2021

Chicago traffic was a dream. Absolute bliss. The simple act of getting into a vehicle and heading south was enough to make me giddy, I’ll admit. Sure, there was Johanna playing outside Cactus Club. There was SistaStrings’ farewell show six Sundays ago. This however was hitting the road and going to A Show. Friday night. Thalia Hall. It had been forever.

We’d no sooner ordered drinks and sat down than the band walked onstage, 8 on the dot. Makaya McCraven, whose name already elicits awe in plenty of circles. The sort of master who already seems destined to be known by future generations as a legend. Not that I was thinking about this at that moment. Not that he was.

McCraven sat down at his kit and acknowledged time passed. It was that moment, the one I’d been fantasizing about for sixteen months, only it didn’t produce the deafening roar of gratitude I’d imagined; the seated-and-distanced crowd reaction was fairly subdued, including my own, as if it were a fait accompli, as if we weren’t still trying to dig out of societal hell, as if we deserved this. McCraven had few words other than to announce the first number, and maybe that’s the crux; there are no words, there is no reaction, commensurate to what was lost and what we are hoping to regain. The best thing is always to quiet the mind, dismiss the words, and listen.

I’m a writer, so that’s not always easy for me. Live music is one of my only escapes from my head, from words, and having been apart for so long, my brain wasn’t quite ready to abandon the merciless campaign of over-analysis it’s been waging every waking minute since the pandemic began. “I don’t know about this guitarist”, it would say to me. “So knuckley when he solos, like Willie Nelson trying to play Zoot Horn Rollo.” But I’d quickly admonish myself to shut up and take it in. And it wasn’t long before the more apparent factor was the way he (Matt Gold) and McCraven fed off each other’s energy. It’s a level of connectivity you rarely find anywhere outside of jazz; it’s the first show in forever and a few songs into the set they were already playing as if they’d spent a whole tour learning each other’s ins and outs.

This performance was very different than when I’d last seen McCraven, with a more traditional trio at the Jazz Estate, a more simplistic trading of solos and showcase for McCraven’s raw drum wizardry. This set at Thalia was more of an ensemble experience that got weirder and more experimental as it went on. This is what I was hoping for and yet dared not to really hope. There was the great Junius Paul up there, rarely even standing up his double bass in favor of the electric that almost looked like a toy in his hands but did not sound like one. There was also Marquis Hill on trumpet and flugelhorn. It was impossible to predict from song to song which performer would be holding down a straight rhythm or maintaining a melodic theme; some songs I didn’t even have a handle on the meter until a few minutes in, and some were rhythms that a seated human body is hard-pressed to even process. It was mesmerizing. It was just the sort of stuff I needed to take me right out of my head.

Still, my thoughts kept returning to something McCraven had said introducing a cover of “There Comes A Time” by his favorite drummer: “—I hate to say it, ‘cause I don’t like picking favorites, but—Tony Williams.” And I feel like that’s a product of The Discourse right now, how unhip it is to acknowledge that anything is better than anything else. I’ve said before that McCraven is my favorite drummer currently out there; naturally that could change at any time, and it’s an innocuous claim for me to make—because I’m not making a list, not assigning a number to him, perhaps? But suddenly I felt like if Makaya can name his favorite drummer, maybe making a top-ten album list at the end of the year isn’t such a crime after all.

It could also be innocuous because I said “favorite” rather than “greatest”. This is another perennial argument that writers and music fans get into, whether there’s any difference, whether critical praise is a performative gesture. It would be silly to argue that critics don’t sometimes choose their rhetoric in a show of activism or magnification rather than purely based on personal taste. Another silly notion is that taste is something that we receive obliviously, that we don’t take an active role in choosing what we appreciate. Furthermore, the notion of greatness as accumulated praise through history has revealed that those tasked with documenting culture have failed miserably in lifting up voices that needed to be heard.

This brings us Summer Of Soul, which I haven’t really stopped thinking about since I watched it. Amidst the pure joy and beauty of it there was fury. The very idea that the Harlem Cultural Festival happened in the summer of ’69 and I had never even heard of it was maddening. These tapes sat in a basement for 50 years because no producer in the film industry was interested in making a movie out of the footage? When making a great movie would’ve been as easy as splicing these sets together. Admittedly, ?uestlove made something even greater than the sum of the performances, yet the performances themselves…

Wait, am I supposed to say “favorite”? Just that I liked the movie? The Mahalia Jackson/Mavis Staples portion, for instance; was that a great moment in music history, or did I simply like it? (Confession: Mavis is my favorite singer alive; I am biased…or…am I?) That was the part of the movie where I felt like I was losing my mind; this should’ve been a story told through the years with reverence, that somewhere along the line I should’ve learned about, and I was furious that the world had been denied knowledge of this moment all these years.

There was something else coloring my emotions watching the film, though, and it was a feeling that we’re not making history like this any more. You watch this film and you’re inundated with mere snippets of what I can only think of as legendary performances. Legendary, yet heretofore virtually unknown. The joy of attendees who gave interviews for the film all these years later brought home the feeling that a lot of us chase after in going to see live music: the possibility that we might bear witness to something so unmistakably great, that we’ll have that feeling decades down the road, that history will bear out our feelings in those moments, that we’ll have those stories to tell.

These concerns shouldn’t enter into our heads at the concert, though. The 300,000 attendees of the Harlem Cultural Festival were there in celebration and solidarity, not in anticipation of how history would remember them. I’ll admit that watching some of those performances, my heart ached knowing that I’ll never see anything in the flesh so momentous as this. In these same moments I knew that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t there, though. The thing that mattered was that it happened.

There in Thalia Hall on Friday night, nobody thought they were about to witness some kind of all-time event. In fact nobody could ever legitimately think such a thing these days. The role of music as an aspect of cultural movement has changed so much in 50 years that I wonder if young people watching Summer Of Soul will have any concept of a legendary performance or even performer. We can chalk it up to a complete absence of leadership or the hyper-availability of everything ever, but there’s nothing revolutionary going on in music any more. No matter how many outrageous music videos might bombard us, nobody making them is trying to hold a candle to Nina Simone. Who could blame ‘em? The dominant culture is perfectly content to allow would-be activism to pervade society as an endless stream of novelties, having violently extinguished every revolutionary movement it couldn’t quite sweep under the rug. All that’s left is momentary thrills whose implications are lost the next day amidst the next flurry of memes. All that’s left is fighting over the scraps of dollars fluttering down from the suits above. Nobody can afford to fight the good fight and still enjoy whatever success they may find.

In the case of Makaya McCraven, the fact that the show happened was certainly a victory in and of itself, but what mattered more was being there. We have little choice but to abandon any thought of how history will view our little concerts nowadays, how this absolute genius of percussion leads his little jazz quartet through unique and riveting improvisations on any given night. It matters to us in the moment and to nobody else. I heard plenty of echoes of history throughout the set; aside from obvious nods to titans of jazz, there was the spirit of Gil Scott-Heron looming large; his recorded voice echoed very much like a ghost’s as the band played McCraven’s reimagining of his “I’m New Here”, a voice so revolutionary that nobody could conceive of it until it was too late. There were portions of jams that reminded me of Galactic in their heyday as a melting pot of various Black musics in service to a singular groove, and moments that reminded me of back when Medeski, Martin and Wood were still weird. I also heard lengthy stretches of music that were simultaneously so complex and so flowing that I couldn’t tether them to other music I’d experienced.

Deep down, that’s one of my most prized experiences: something new, something fresh, something I can’t relate to what I’ve heard before. That’ll really silence the words in my head. The other part of live music that I prize most is the communal love energy, the intangible connection between all of us in the audience and if we’re lucky, also the performers onstage. Sometimes it’s awfully hard to get both of these things in a single show, and being so out of practice, I don’t know if I lived up to my end of the bargain on this night. Yet there were plenty of stretches when I was able to let go of the thinking and simply be there in the music, and that was bliss. It was all the things I could want out of a concert.

When the set was over I couldn’t believe an hour and a half had just flown by. This ensemble is really something; I must’ve been lost in the sound for longer than I’d realized. Then they came back onstage and McCraven again expressed succinctly the inexpressible, how much it meant to be back onstage again, how much it meant that we were out here, how we must never again take these opportunities for granted. These feelings I have to believe were unmistakable and I hope they were felt by everyone. As the band weirded out yet again for an encore, my heart was indeed bursting with the feeling I hadn’t felt in longer than I ever thought possible, and although the stakes were low and the world is almost unrecognizable from the world of 1969, I think it’s the same feeling that plenty of people felt that summer in Harlem. We’re here to exchange energy and express our appreciation for this incredible music these people are channeling for us. We’re here to bear witness to the greatness. Whether or not our species even lasts long enough to view these events with any sense of history, I’m going to keep it up, just in case.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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