by Robert Kerstens
Xavier Dphrepaulezz, also known as Fantastic Negrito, has been a hustler all his life. Throughout his show on October 10th at Berklee’s Café 939, he painted grim vignettes of a life of debauchery, resorting to robbery and drug dealing to make ends meet. His latest con? Stealing the throne of the modern blues rock scene from the likes of the Black Keys or the White Stripes and returning the genre to its black roots.
Fantastic Negrito’s music is soulfully unrestrained and sharply political, his voice bleeding from a lifetime of pain and frustration. His sound evokes a vaudevillian brothel, with his raspy wail crooning over soulful organ and acidic guitars. Xavier’s brash confidence was impossible to ignore, commanding the stage and magnifying his role as the frontman. While they often stood modestly in his shadow, the other members of the band were far from just sonic wallpaper. Each musician got their fair share of spotlight, with every song providing opportunities to showcase their respective talents.
The performance packed a metric ton of energy that the tiny Café 939 could hardly contain. Xavier was a firecracker on stage, strutting and jerking his body back and forth all while giving the audience a rabid open eyed stare. It never felt as though he was simply going through the motions on stage, consistently performing with a rare urgency and fiery passion. But most importantly, he was having fun on stage, bantering with audience members and dancing like nobody was watching. At one point, he actually brought me up on stage to dance with him to an instrumental track. It was intimidating trying to match his level of limitless enthusiasm and inhibition, but I got a handshake hug from Xavier himself, so suppose I did alright. Between every song a narrative was weaved of his past life, building the context for the raw emotion present in his music. He had a raunchy sense of humor that seeped into his lyrics, which in conjunction with the overtly political themes made the music unsuitable to play in the truck or Viagra commercials that the gritty blues sound would normally provide a background to.
The set largely featured music from his latest LP, The Last Days of Oakland. Highlights included the snarling barn burning hoedown, “Scary Woman”. Another track that stood out was “Working Poor”, a cutting political ballad that featured a rollicking keyboard solo. Xavier preceded his cover of folk song “In the Pines” with a heartbreaking stories of tragic deaths of teenagers in Oakland, re-contextualizing the song and dedicating it to the women who hold the world together and the mothers who raise their sons just to bury them. “About a Bird”, slow burning ballad that would be right at home in a smoky bar, featured a howling guitar solo that echoed the despair in Xavier’s wounded whine. Closing the night was “Lost in a Crowd”, a fiery thumping ode to loneliness. Before the song was even over, Xavier had already stormed off the stage, handing the microphone off to a baffled fan who had no idea what to do with it.
I came into the show with few expectations and Fantastic Negrito far exceeded all of them. It was one of the best concerts I’ve been to in recent memory. Not only did the performance outpace most other performances in terms of energy and stage presence, but Xavier even managed to bring more force to the music than he did on his own records, deviating from the script in interesting ways and allowing his supporting musicians to show off their abilities with dazzling improvised solos. Keep an eye on the name Fantastic Negrito, I’ve got a feeling the next time he comes around he won’t be playing at Café 939.