Jon Batiste Transmits A World-Wide Sonic Message Review+Photos: Jon Batiste at Brooklyn Steel 8/18/23
NEW YORK, NY—Jon Batiste’s shows have always felt like a kind of baptism, a renewal of faith. And I mean baptism in the most expansive sense—not the strictures of scripture but an unwavering belief that by making and sharing music, we wash away the stain of fear to see ourselves and one another clearly. I find in Batiste’s music a belief in love’s redeeming power, a way to call us all home no matter how great the distance.
In World Music Radio—the follow-up to Grammy-winning WE ARE (2021)—Batiste adopts the persona of an interstellar DJ Billy Bob Bo Bob, curating a boundary-hopping collection of music for a late-night transmission through the cosmos. In a recent N.Y. Times interview, Batiste describes the character as a griot, a storyteller, a unifier, a disrupter—and a rebel. The spoken interludes carry on through the album. I leave it to critics to debate whether World Music Radio is an ambitious sonic kaleidoscope or a too-safe pivot toward pop hooks. The morning the album dropped, I texted a friend: “I’m on track 2 and my spirit feels uplifted.” She responded: “It’s so beautiful and one of those very rare concept albums where the spoken segments actually work.” That’s more than enough for me.
The album features a dizzying array of collaborators, including Lana Del Ray, K-pop outfit NewJeans, Colombian singer Camillo, Atlanta rapper JID, Leigh-Anne Pinnock of Little Mix, Nigerian singer Fireboy DML, and South African Ampiano producers Native Soul. (Admittedly, I don’t know how to feel about Kenny G’s sax solo on the instrumental “Clair de Lune.”)
“Uneasy” is a standout track—synths wrapping around Batiste’s beguiling falsetto as he leads us through a landscape cleaved in two (left and the right talkin’ two different stories). Midway through, everything drops out but the beat and piano as Lil Wayne takes the mic (had me on the hardtop, thinkin’ it was easy street), and then synths and horns weave back in, somehow making the fractured a bit more whole.
On Friday night at Brooklyn Steel, Batiste donned the fantastical vintage headphones that appear on the album art, a pair of radio antenna jutting upward (a playful nod to alien appendages?). With a full band of horns, percussion, backup singers, indigenous vocalists/drummers, a cohort of rappers—and at one point, some lucky audience members pulled up onto the stage—the show was as joyous as any I’ve attended. Batiste switched between piano, melodica, and guitar, and hopped down to play from the floor at a few points. The crowd wasn’t so familiar with the new songs (the album dropped just that morning), and it took some amiable coaxing for us to nail down the refrain to “Raindance,” but we were trying in earnest—and that earnestness was everything.
The word “anhedonia” has popped up in conversations with friends recently. The disconnect from feelings of pleasure is a strange place to sit for any length of time, and the longer you remain, the harder it is to claw your way out. This show reminded me that the only way for me to find my way through is to drink deeply from the wells of joy where I find them, to let the bassline substitute for my heartbeat, to be open to receiving these transmissions.
From the pulsing electropop of “Calling Your Name” to the piano ballad “Butterfly” to the full-room EDM of “Worship,” Batiste wove together disparate musical threads. Perhaps I should say “supposedly disparate”—he’s so familiar with and comfortable with these musical traditions and geographies, and in his hands, I can believe that all of this was always already a unified whole.
Unified, but not a monolith—Batiste’s activism is one that embraces all races and politics, but not in a way that erases differences or histories. I’m not sure I can explain it, but I felt it in the protest marches/street concerts he led in summer 2020. (If you’re in Chicago, my image of Batiste performing on the steps of Brooklyn Public Library is part of an outdoor exhibit curated by Courtney Love and Julie Panebianco for the ARChive of Contemporary Music.) If we don’t start with a belief in shared humanity, we won’t get very far.
A small part of me misses the pre-Colbert days, when I would shyly exchange a few words with Batiste after his late-night sets at DC’s Bohemian Caverns. But his is a message that needs to be beamed far and wide, and the night at Brooklyn Steel felt like a promise of continued conversation.
The show didn’t end on stage. In the tradition of his Stay Human band’s “love riots” in the streets, Batiste walked onto the floor, and band and crowd followed. Maybe a hundred of us managed to go into the streets before the rest got stuck in a scrum between the front door and the bar. I was in the latter group, sweaty, smiling, at a standstill. And then I heard the music again. The New Orleans-style second line had spilled onto the streets and doubled back into the venue, and there was Batiste, down to a white undershirt, sweat glistening, head thrown back as he danced his way across the room, clasping hands, the crowd parting as the horns and tambourines followed.The place that you left me is the place that you find me. Pick up a copy of World Music Radio here. Los Angeles: Jon Batiste plays Fonda Theater this Wednesday, August 23 (tickets here). Follow Jon Batiste on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.