Israeli producer and bandleader Idan Raichel last brought his well-polished ensemble to Toronto three years ago. At his latest concert, though, a more intimate stage design suggested he's adjusted his live performance.
Raichel's group blends instrumentals and piano-driven pop to a shuffling medium-rock beat with dramatic vocals in Hebrew, Aramaic and Spanish; tonal and percussive phrases from Middle Eastern and African traditions further the world-fusion feel with flute, clarinet, hand drums, tar and oud.
Raichel opened the show crouched over the grand piano keys, but soon appeared more engaged as bandleader, his waist-length dreadlocks swirling about his pulsing hands. Vocalist Ravid Kahalani's Yemenite wails guided an almost soul pop rendition of the well-received "Im Telech." By the time the group reached "Ayal Ayale," Raichel addressed the audience, acknowledging the musicians on stage — six solo artists out of 85 he records — before kick-starting an Ethiopian riff, one of a handful of upbeat numbers amid the ballads.
The set drew from Raichel's latest album Within My Walls and its 2006 self-titled predecessor, with the touring players corresponding smartly. Sudanese refugee-camp-born vocalist Cabra Kasai shone on "Todas Las Palabras," while 2006's "Hinach Yafa (Thou Art Beautiful)" and then-breakout single "Mi'Ma'amakim (Out of the Depths)" demonstrated Raichel's knack for live arrangements of well-known material through his trickier manipulations of time and melody.
Eventually, Raichel directed things by hand, showcasing Eyal Sela's reeds or duet vocals in Hebrew by Maya Avraham and in Spanish by Kasai, until a sizzling close with Kahalani's dancehall explosion, the singer busting some moves while freestyling. For an encore, Raichel's boogie-woogie piano on "Shuvi El Beyti (Come Back to My Home)" and "Brong Faya (Burn Fire)" evoked pop-formatted Motown, with African and Arabic touches in place of brass and bass. Through his sweeping arrangements, Raichel achieved a consistent sound across the international samplings that colour his pop music, transforming lush studio work into compelling live pieces.