On November 16th, 2017 I had the great pleasure of seeing Kamasi Washington at the Danforth Theatre in Toronto and a little while later, also on November 16th, 2017, I had the great pleasure of seeing Kamasi Washington at the Danforth Theatre in Toronto…again.
When Kamasi announced his tour my friend Rob and I jumped on tickets for the Toronto show right away. Not only did we jump on them, we also shelled out for the “VIP experience” – a first for me – which included exclusive merch, early entry to the show, and a meet and greet with the artist. Rob reasoned that the upgrade was a good deal considering it cost about the same as a t-shirt and a poster – which we would probably buy at the show anyway – and I agreed.
Then a month before the concert Kamasi announced a second show on the same night. Curiously, the late show featured reserved seating while the early show was general admission. I reasoned that there was no way that a jazz head like Kamasi Washington and his amazing band would play the same set for both concerts, especially if one show would be in front of a stand-up crowd (as I assumed the GA show would be) and the other would be seated – and if there were to be any repeats the songs would probably get completely different treatments. So (I figured), attending both shows would basically be the same as seeing two sets of a double-long concert, and Rob agreed.
Plus the second ticket seemed like a bargain ($47) after paying the inflated VIP price ($120) for the first.
Rob and I checked in to our hotel and enjoyed a cocktail while we planned our strategy. Should we cab to the show or drive? The wrench in the soup was a saxophone that I was bringing with me. I was hoping to get it signed by Kamasi at the meet and greet so I could auction it off to raise funds for the charitable organization I run, and I didn’t want to lug it around with me and worry about keeping it safe for the two shows, especially if one show was standing-room only. In other words, it would be good to have the car with us.
We finally decided that we would drive to the venue, attend the meet and greet and then quickly drive back to the hotel and drop off the sax, the merch and my car before cabbing back to the Danforth before the first show began, leaving us unencumbered for both concerts.
That’s not what happened.
We did drive to the theatre and found free parking directly across the street. We were the first of the VIPs to arrive, and by the time they ushered the six of us inside there was already a considerable line outside waiting to rush the GA gate. Inside, we were led to a merch table and given limited edition posters and t-shirts before entering the theatre itself where Kamasi was waiting to sign, shake and smile.
For the Q&A Washington’s manager suggested we all grab a seat in the front row (“Whattya know?” I thought. “There are indeed seats set up for the first show…”). Any questions?
I started: “Who would you like to play with that you haven’t already played with?”
Instantly Kamasi answered, “Brian Blade.” I shivered at the mere thought of it. Then he started listing off more names, really thinking hard about his answer. I was impressed. Then Rob followed up with a Dead-related question. Then crickets from the others. To fill the void Rob and I each asked another question. More crickets and more questions from Rob and I. We both kept zipping our lips to give the other VIPers a chance to add their own queries but they had nothing. The manager even went down the row one-by-one, “Do you have a question for Kamasi?”
Buddy Holly and the Crickets.
So Rob and I (and Kamasi) carried the conversation for the entire Q&A, which went on way, way longer than I ever imagined it would, like 25-30 minutes maybe? It got so casual that I asked how his border crossing had gone earlier in the day and he surprised us all with a story about one of the band’s drummers getting turned away! An unfortunate situation to be sure, and especially weird given how many times the same drummer had crossed the border into Canada before. Luckily Kamasi had the foresight to employ two drummers in his band so the show could easily go on.
In the end, I can report that Kamasi Washington comes off as a very thoughtful, friendly, smart man with a seemingly huge capacity for love and respect, especially when it comes to music, and I can further report that the VIP experience felt well worth the money.
When Kamasi went backstage to prep for his first set the six of us were left sitting there in the front row. I looked around, realized that Rob and I were literally in the very, very best seats in the house and we instantly altered our plans. There was no way we could throw away these seats by driving back to the hotel so I took one for the team: I walked our merch and my signed saxophone out to the car and returned to our prime seats committed to staying sober and driveable for the evening. And in no time, the (first) show began.
From the first note I was supremely pleased with all the decisions that had delivered me to the place I was at. Kamasi’s band is a very well-oiled musical machine; every player is exceptionally talented, well-rehearsed, and clearly devoted to their craft. Kamasi stood tall and steered the ship from midstage, standing nearly toe-to-toe with his remarkable trombone player, with the sole drummer relentlessly making time with time directly behind both of them.
On either side of the two front-of-stagers were a pair of musicians that constantly stole the show without ever trying to; the astoundingly creative keyboard player on stage left and the gyrating, orgasmic sing-like-it’s-the-end-of-the-world vocalist to stage right. Behind (and underneath) it all was a bass playing kid who looked no more than seventeen shyly holding the planet together at the back, right next to the drummer.
From my spot dead-centre in the front row it was easy to see the trust they all had in each other. Handing solos and melodies back and forth with full confidence and nary a glance, the players simply stepped in and out of their roles with detachment and humility, like so many felted hammers striking and resting inside a piano, happy servants to the higher cause of making astoundingly beautiful music.
Gosh, everybody was so good.
With no rows in front of us it was super-easy for Rob to go for a beer, a happy-stance that he took advantage of time and time again. It was no hardship for me to stay put and nurse my sole beer of the night for most of the first show; aside from saving myself a million dollars and affording us a method of getting back to the hotel safely, abstaining from the alcohol allowed me to keep my focus and attention solely and squarely on the music, which was constantly ethereal in it’s brilliance.
When we came back in for the second set…errr, the second ticketed show, Rob and I found our reserved seats about halfway back near the middle of the aisle, coincidentally just two seats over from a friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. And though it was a fine view of a fantastic set of music I sure did miss being close enough to get an actual whiff of the scales and modes.
And just like we predicted, the second show was nothing like the first. Well, that’s not entirely true, the last two songs were the same songs, but man, did the band play them differently. I remember in particular that brilliant keyboardist just taking over with the single greatest keytar solo I have not only ever heard, but that I can believe has ever been possible.
My goodness, it was so incredible.
And when it was all said and done we just popped across the street to the car and drove nice and legal back to the hotel, where a bourbon and Coke or two helped me let the glory of the night wash over me.
Kamasi Washington is that good. I’m convinced that this is what it must have felt like to see John Coltrane back in his prime. Really.
(I have no idea how and/or why the ticket for the late show has the wrong date on it, but I just now noticed that it says the 9:30 show was on Monday, October 16th, which it wasn’t.)