‘Afrobeat’ brings a taste of Chicago to Rathskeller

When the Chicago Afrobeat Project took the Rathskeller stage on Oct. 9 to play some blistering free-form jazz, eight members were present: two guitarists, two percussionists, two saxophonists, a keyboardist . and a painter. As the rest of the band played its set, an artist stayed busy at an easel, creating an abstract piece as vibrant as the music on stage.

“That’s Chadwick, and he’s been with us (on tour) a bunch of times,” Garrick Smith, who plays baritone saxophone for the Project, said. “It’s great how he’s doing it live and going with the emotion of the music. It’s really fun to watch.”

For a band as eclectic as the Chicago Afrobeat Project, having a painter at a live show does not seem that peculiar. The Chicago-area group combined tight song structures with intricate instrumentation to form complex jazz numbers that gave off the appearance of being simple. Most songs stretched past the six-minute mark, but with all of the ornate movements each one held, it was hard to lose interest.

The Project, which has been touring the country in support of its new album, “(A) Move to Silent Unrest,” draws from many musical influences while maintaining a unique voice.

“We’re trying to keep one foot in the past and one foot in the future,” Smith, who cited various genres, from house music to punk rock, as essential to the band’s sound, said. “We’re trying to see how far we can push our sound.”

A close listen to each song revealed an array of up-tempo melodies working against each other, with Kevin Ford’s twinkling keyboard riffs serving as a foundation and the dual saxophones strengthening the overall sound.

Although most of the songs contained no lyrics, guitarist David Glines said that the arrangements speak for themselves. He added that the song titles help convey each track’s message to the listener:

“It’s a little thing,” he said, “but it’s a lot of what we’re trying to say.”

One of the show’s highlights was a song titled “Three Snare,” which was performed only on percussion. Each member of the band stood at a different drum and took turns adding to the deafening rhythm of the song, which eventually swelled up and crashed down on the audience. “Three Snare” was meticulously executed and provided a solid change of pace from the easy-going jazz-funk that comprised most of the set.

“We’re always trying to move musical boundaries,” Glines, who chipped in some hard-hitting guitar solos throughout the evening, said. “The evolution of our sound is very important.”

The Chicago Afrobeat Project will continue touring throughout this month, having recently played at several festivals and in major cities like Philadelphia and New York.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Smith, who talked about the differences between playing a huge festival and a smaller venue like the Rathskeller, said.

“We have a shorter time slot at festivals, so we sometimes start out hitting harder. It takes a little while to get going at a smaller venue, but we have more time to play. It’s great.”

As for the painting, what once was a blank white slate had become a flowing arrangement of contorted shapes and colors over the course of the Chicago Afrobeat Project’s set. Like the band’s music that night, it was captivating.

The Chicago Afrobeat Project broke away from the normal slate of traditonal rock and roll outfits that populate the Rat at Friday night’s CUBRat shows. For more information and about this off-the-wall band, visit its Web site at chicagoafrobeatproject.com.