The first time I saw Nomo was at an after party for the Ann Arbor Film Festival four years ago, because they’d asked my friend Joey Dosik to bring his alto saxophone and guest on a few tunes. Since then I’ve seen them dozens of times, written about them and somewhere down the line became friends with them. They’ve come a long way since then, both musically and professionally. Their third album, Ghost Rock, came out a few weeks ago on Ubiquity, to rave reviews, and from what they’ve told me, more people are coming out to see them live than ever before. When I heard they were playing on August 5 at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, I looked forward to seeing them, anticipating a good dose of Michigan nostalgia and assuming I knew what to expect from a band I was so familiar with.
But one reason music is so great is because it can take you by surprise. And boy, was I caught off guard at the Bottom of the Hill. It shouldn’t be a revelation that a band that’s been touring so much is tighter than ever, but every aspect of Nomo seems streamlined for maximum impact. They’ve trimmed their touring ensemble down to a meager-for-Afrobeat eight musicians, forgoing a couple saxophones and a second trumpet player. Their arrangements are crisper and their set list has been honed to a perfect mix of old favorites and new classics. For a band that likes to stretch motifs to the breaking point, the solos even seemed shorter, but they were more forceful in their brevity.
Maybe it’s just because of my familiarity with them, but it seems like the band is relying on each of their member’s distinct personalities more. Songs like “Nu Tones,” the title track off their standout second LP, are buoyed by Elliott Bergman’s handmade electric thumb piano (think Konono No. 1), while others rely on bassist Jamie Register’s loping low end. Other songs, like “Hand to Mouth,” are propelled by Erik Hall’s incessant guitar stabs. Drummer Dan Piccolo sits up straight on his throne like Tony Allen and is the reason even the most uncoordinated felt compelled to dance the entire show. And if they spotlight shone the hardest on one person, it was baritone saxophonist Dan Bennett, who took the most solos and whose blowing felt like it might take the roof off the venue.
If I had any complaints, it’d be not enough Jamie Register vocals. She’s a real rock star (the kind that can pull off sunglasses at night), and when she stepped up to the microphone for the one measly chorus, she electrified the crowd. That’s sort of Nomo’s ethos, though: Leave ‘em wanting more.
They ended this show like they have every single show I’ve ever seen them play, by walking off the stage and into the audience for the wordless sing-along “Sarvodaya.” It’s a beautiful moment every time it happens.