Amadou And Mariam, Shepherds Bush Empire, London

A bit of Mali, by way of France
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The Independent Culture

But before we see them, there's the singer-songwriter Piers Faccini to consider - a competent but exasperatingly generic blues balladeer alone on the stage with his Les Paul. Fortunately, the Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko joins him after one number, but the overall affect is still very Chris Rea. The Mississippi wheeze of harmonica gives way to self-pitying lyrics of "days gone by" and "salty tears". He has a pleasant enough voice and a functional guitar technique, but, surely, we need more from our artists than this. Fortunately Sissoko eventually gets his own brief solo spot, and his austere, busily inventive playing - sounding like a one-man chamber orchestra - gets the biggest applause of the evening so far. Then we're back to the sub-Clapton blues. No matter. Let's move on to what everyone's here for in this packed venue.

Anyone who was at their Marquee gig in June already know they're in for a treat. Any fears that Amadou and Mariam's sound may have been diluted by having Manu Chao produce their latest and most successful album, Dimanche à Bamako, were quickly banished.

The album is all about textures and pared-down beats. Live, they are something else altogether. They break us in gently with a bunch of songs from that album before delving into their back-catalogue of at least 10 albums. It is all infectious stuff - one minute grinding boogie and the next loping reggae. Amadou is an extraordinary guitarist. He seems to channel all his Seventies influences in lightning succession - Hendrix, Alvin Lee, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour - each pushing the other aside to run off a few notes. But his playing is never derivative or self-indulgent. Solos stick to the economic conciseness of their studio versions, where they function as integral melodic elements to songs. There are no histrionically indulgent runs stretched to breaking point out of some misguided notion that that's what audiences want - so some of his guitar heroes could learn a lesson here.

Mariam, meanwhile, stands calmly at his side, singing in her charmingly laid-back manner, functioning as the needed ballast to all the frenetic playing around her. The powerful percussion work of Boubacar Dembele is particularly memorable, making it easy to forget the simplified, disco-friendly beats of the album.

But what's most appealing about Amadou and Mariam are is way they integrate their diverse influences (they even confessed to a love of Rod Stewart's "Sailing" on Charlie Gillett's BBC London radio show last weekend!) so subtly into their songs. A young English or American band being "influenced" by their favourite band would most likely slavishly copy them, power-chord for power-chord, but this duo's music is first and foremost 21st-century Malian music.

Manu Chao caused a storm earlier this year when he joined the band on stage in Paris, but although he doesn't show tonight, he's not missed - and that's the way, I've no doubt, that he would like it. While Chao must be proud to have introduced them to a new audience, he's now standing back to let this extraordinary couple finally get the attention that they deserve.

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