The website nellysecho.com describes Nelly’s echo as “neither a band nor a solo musician, but a concept of the musical experience associated with its creator and led by guitarist and vocalist Nelson Emokpae”. This is definitely evidenced by the band’s ever revolving lineup. I’ve seen the band three times, and to the best of my knowledge it’s been a different assortment of musician’s each time, with the only player in common being Nelson Emokpae, its frontman.
I saw the band for the third time on friday night, on “The Avenue” in White Marsh, Baltimore. The newly renovated plaza has had its brick covered ground replaced by a giant turf field. People sit on blankets in front of a small, slightly elevated stage. A local high school rents out lawn chairs, while neighboring restaurants hawk beer and pretzels under tents along the edge of the field.
When the band finally takes the stage, they play The Cure’s “Lovesong”. It takes a moment to recognize the song as it is. It is restyled as a soulful reggaefunk jam, with the familiar synth progression, replaced by intonations of ooohs and aaahs. With scarcely any pause, they launch into “Waiting on the World to Change” a John Mayer hit. You haven’t heard the song until you’ve heard it with a go-go beat.
Nelly’s Echo play a variety of covers throughout the night. They range from the touching rendition of “Hallelujah” to the bizzare “Fast Car” with a verse from “Uptown Funk” inserted midway through. No genre of music is out of bounds. Emokpae & Co. cut songs up and twist them beyond immediate recognition before weaving them together into a patchwork quilt of music that is somewhat original, somewhat borrowed, and all excellent.
Midway through, the band takes a break. Pop music blares from the speakers as Emokpae steps down from the platform and mingles with the crowd. A young boy runs over to request a song. Nelson smilingly obliges.
It’s almost definite that not everyone there is a fan of reggae or funk, and yet, looking around, I saw nobody that wasn’t having an absolute blast. Emokpae, Morris, Parks, and Ralls radiate passion in their playing, something that the crowd can clearly detect. As they play “Purple Rain” near the end of the show, Ralls half-jokingly waces his arm too and fro in time with the music. Phones are produced, and brightness levels are turned to the maximum.
The atmosphere Nelly’s Echo creates live is a powerful but intimate one. I’d love to see them blow up, and be recognized for their great music, but for the time being I’ll take them where they are right now; small, but formidable, playing great music everywhere they perform.