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Clubland: AstroBeast brings ‘music for dancing’ to The Elevens in Northampton

PHOTO BY JODY NICHOLAS
 Dan Richardson, center, on bass, performs with AstroBeast

PHOTO BY JODY NICHOLAS Dan Richardson, center, on bass, performs with AstroBeast

Dan Richardson mans the mixing board with a huge grin, fine-tuning with faders and knobs while bopping around in the back of the room to the live music happening on stage.

That sentence was accurate in 1994, the first time I made Richardson’s acquaintance (doing sound for one of his favorite bands, The Maggies), and it’s still true today, as he enthusiastically engineers live sound at clubs, theaters and more unique venues, both locally and internationally.

But in recent years, multi-instrumentalist Richardson has gotten back onto the stage himself, getting audiences up and moving with AstroBeast, his sprawling “Afrobeat mashup” ensemble, which combines grooves by Fela Kuti (often described as “the James Brown of Africa”) with the lyrics and melodies of pop songs by The O’Jays, Diana Ross, King Crimson and others.

How sprawling is the ensemble? There’s an average of 16 musicians onstage creating that rolling, hypnotic groove.

“There’s always room for more,” Richardson said in an interview earlier this week.

It’s a funky orchestra packed with multiple percussionists, vocalists and a horn section, with Richardson quietly and energetically at the center, anchoring down the rhythm on bass guitar.

AstroBeast will fill the stage and the dance floor at The Elevens Tuesday night at 7:30.

Though Richardson has been in various Valley groups over the years (Crackerjack Celtic Band, Shokazoba), AstroBeast is the first band he’s ever organized, and the inspiration started years ago when he was in an outfit that played Fela Kuti songs as-is.

“I liked the grooves and the horn parts, but Fela’s songs are mostly about either specific Nigerian politics or the stupidity of bringing European customs to Africa. Lyrically I couldn’t relate,” he said.

During 2010, guitarist Luke Jaeger suggested that he and Richardson try playing together, and Richardson floated the idea of mixing Fela’s grooves and horns with the Jamaican concept of singing an American pop song over a reggae rhythm.

“We started with political songs,” Richardson said, “such as Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something In The Air’ over Fela’s ‘Beasts of No Nation,’ and Cordelia’s Dad’s ‘Song Of The Heads’ over Fela’s ‘Zombie.’ ”

Richardson further created the AstroBeast sound by ignoring a typical drum set and instead building the huge rhythm with a crew of percussionists, playing bass drum, clave, shekere (a West African instrument made from a dried gourd, covered with a net of beads) and more.

Finally he decided that no one would front the band. Each song would be sung by a different member.

At AstroBeast shows, Richardson rocks back and forth with a bounce in his step, directing band members with a nod while the ensemble stays locked into the mesmerizing groove for seven, 10 minutes at a time.

“I’ve never had a head for remembering complex scores,” he said. “Learn one bar of a Fela bass part, and you’re pretty much good to go. I get to stand in the middle and listen to each player’s little component build this wonderful mesh.”

The AstroBeast core is Richardson, Jaeger and Kaliis Smith on guitar, Dave Trenholm on sax and Kate Richardson (Dan’s wife) on vocals. The “first string percussion” players are J.J. O’Connell, Carl Bridge, Malcom Braverman, Kirin Bourgeois and Jim Humphrey. There’s also Kevin Smith on tuba and hard-working vocalists Michele Costigan, Karen Schumer and Samantha Smith. (Shoshana Marchand is also a regular vocalist but is unable to be at Tuesday’s show.) And usually more folks on sax and trumpet.

“We need a huge pool of players in order to achieve the quorum of a dozen or so that it takes to cover the parts,” Richardson said.

Big bands can often be the most fun to watch — and to be in. The AstroBeast unit is a party onstage, an ever-changing scene of dancing, improvising, smaller musical conversations happening within the larger one. Brass and woodwinds suddenly exclaim melodies together and then disappear, coming back around one by one to make solo statements. Multiple guitars and percussion lock into a groove, chugging like a soul train. It’s a truly live band.

AstroBeast isn’t a typical group doing typical things like recording CDs and booking tours. Richardson considers some shows “public rehearsals” and to make room on the riser at previous gigs at The Elevens, the huge band stretched out into the crowd.

“ ‘Making it’ isn’t really part of the plan,” he said. “With an average of 16 people on stage, it’s pretty clear that nobody is ever going to earn a dime in this band. The only reason to do it is because it’s fun. It’s music for dancing.”

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