Mdou Moctar Was Triumphant in Toronto

Phoenix Concert Theatre, July 25

With Hot Garbage

Photo: Stephen McGill

BY Isabel Glasgow Published Jul 26, 2023

A beaming grin of gratitude shone on Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar's face whenever he roamed the edge of the stage at Toronto's Phoenix Concert Theatre, getting as close to his audience as possible. His humble awe was surely familiar to fans who caught his opening set for Parquet Courts in March 2022, but this time, the room was packed specifically for him — a triumph well worth smiling about.

Moctar's widespread appeal was affirmed by his diverse crowd, where several generations of music enthusiasts could be found in the same square metre. His appreciation within the modern psych community made local fuzzed-out favourites Hot Garbage a fitting opener; the four piece brought slightly sinister energy as they burned through moody, hypnotic highlights of debut album Ride. The number of heads bobbing along — particularly during standout "Sometimes I Go Down" — made their upward trajectory within and beyond the Toronto music scene all the more evident.

A few puffs of the smoke machine was all it took to rile up the crowd for Moctar's dusty desert blues — a fusion of rock and blues with Saharan music — and for just over an hour, Moctar, rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane, bassist Mikey Coltun, and drummer Souleymane Ibrahim delivered relentless energy and groove. Rather than bursting into its rollicking riff as one would expect, Moctar and band began the title track of 2021's excellent Afrique Victime in a dreamy haze as he passionately sang about political injustice in Niger — a fitting opener for a Canadian audience able to understand its French lyrics.

A break between songs due to a broken capo only heightened the energy as Moctar resumed with "Tarhatazed," headbanging along to his own playing nearly as much as his audience while encouraging them to clap along. Throughout the set, Moctar made rapid-fire picking — with no pick, no less — seem entirely effortless. Between call-and-response vocals sung in his native Tamasheq, solos ebbed and bent with intensity and inventiveness, leaving his typically lengthy jams feeling both infinite and over in a heartbeat. His energy was clearly infectious, inciting movement on the verge of a mosh pit as the show neared its end.

His mesmerizing set may have felt deceptively short, but resumed in full force during an epicly jammed out "Chismiten" encore, where teases of songs played earlier in the night snuck in like a highlight reel of his stunning performance. Many of Moctar's studio recordings aim to be as far removed from the studio as possible, simply documenting one iteration of a jam hashed out on the road. With this in mind, it made sense how well his music translated back into the live setting it was born out of.

Left-handed and self-taught, it may seem lazy (or blasphemous) to compare Moctar's scintillating, high speed riffs to those of Jimi Hendrix, but his peerless, virtuosic playing makes it only sensible to compare him to an artist known for being incomparable. With a start performing at weddings, often without a stage to separate artist and crowd, Moctar's music is rooted in community and meant for dancing; the connection between artist and audience felt palpable during his set. As the band left the stage, Coltun ran back to hand the broken capo to an ecstatic fan at front centre as Moctar smiled at the audience with his hands on his heart, simply reflecting how music connects us all. 

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