Tinariwen, Barbican London

Ain't nothing but the desert blues...
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The Independent Culture

"Was that Robert Plant?" asks the woman sitting next to me. It was indeed, but blink and you'd have missed him. He's on stage just long enough to say he hopes we have an enjoyable evening in the company of his good friends, Tinariwen.

As he begins the evening with a solo performance of "Tenere," charismatic frontman, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, barely tickles the strings of his Stratocaster and sings like John Lee Hooker at his most laid-back. Then the rest of the eight-piece join him, and we find out why this Touareg band are currently capturing the imagination of Mojo readers and world music fans alike.

Handclaps, and a hand-drum no bigger than a footstool, form all the percussive backdrop that's needed. This leaves plenty of space for the three guitarists, who are the heart of the band's sound, to interlock and interact, while the bass(pictured, below) throbs away in the background. One guitarist deals out angular chugging riffs. The other two issue wiry curlicues of notes, creating the illusion of baroque complexity in songs built from just one or two chords. The tone of the guitars is clean and sharp, but with an edge of distortion: the sound of electricity incarnate; no pomp, just pure African soul.

The majority of the night's set comes from their previous album Amassakoul, with only three songs from the just-released, Aman Imann. But Tinariwen are as much about a sound as they are about particular tunes, so the set-list is, arguably, irrelevant. Some critics have compared them to the likes of the Clash, but these guys don't push the beat in that need-to-prove-something kind of way, they just sit back on it, and let it leisurely take them round and round until the song's finished - then they do the same thing all over again.

It's also music that's clearly a product of its desert environment: most of the material is slow to mid-tempo, and although there's contained swaying from these heavily robed musicians, there's very little all-out dancing. We're talking about energy-efficient rock'n'roll here - no water wasted as sweat (the title of their new album tellingly translates as "Water is Life").

A standing ovation brings them back for "Matadjam," - the speediest track of the night - and, I suspect, a concession to a western audience needing to have its collective pulse raised before it goes home.

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