Mdou Moctar blows me away every time I see them. It’s the mind-bendingly fast guitar licks that give Eddie Van Halen a run for his money. It’s the tangible energy of the band and the crowd being reciprocated and thrown back and forth like a game of catch. Actually, it might just be their skyscraper-esque amps literally pushing me back from the sheer volume of the music. Regardless, Mdou Moctar knows what it means to play a good show, and this past Friday evening at Union Transfer was no exception.

JRCG | photo by Gavyn Green for WXPN

Experimental music project, and one of Sub Pop’s latest signees, J.R.C.G. took the stage first. Hailing from Tacoma, Washington, the six-piece band dove into a set of intensely hypnotic songs that clawed forward with each massive hit of drummer and band namesake Justin R. Cruz Gallego’s kick drum. Songs like “Ajo Sunshine” and “Rainbow” showcased Gallego’s passion for found sounds and avant garde electronic music, featuring fierce, droning percussion and distorted, earth-shaking bass.

Amidst this sonic march, Gallego sang short, flanged verses before letting the lead guitar and saxophone take turns grinding out solos. After a warm introduction and an interlude that sounded as if a 1950’s news broadcast were aired from the bottom of an ocean, J.R.C.G. followed up with their newest track, “Dogear.” The song was a refined reprisal of Gallego’s chaotic creativity, pushing his lyrics into the spotlight with a downtuned refrain “criminal, criminal, criminal” that sunk back into the pounding waves of percussion and thunderous guitar noise with each passing chorus. By the time Gallego and the band were saying their thank yous, the crowd was completely under their spell, and I found myself aimlessly tapping along to the beat of “Rainbow” as I anxiously waited for Mdou to come out.

Mdou Moctar | photo by Gavyn Green for WXPN

Soon enough, the chandeliers dimmed and Mdou Moctar roared onto the stage. I turned back from the photo pit to a packed house of onlookers, everyone from GA to the balcony wide eyed and waiting for the show to begin. The tuareg rockers wasted no time launching into “Funeral for Justice,” the opener to their latest album of the same name. Mdou’s opening riff sent the crowd into a frenzy of applause and he began to plead his case, “Dear African leaders, hear my burning question. Why does your ear only heed France and America? They misled you into giving up your lands. They delightfully watch you in your fraternal feud. They possess the power to help out but chose not to. Why is that? When your rights are trodden upon…”

Such sentiments are abundant throughout Funeral for Justice: Mdou protests Niger’s political instability, the cultural division of North African nations, and the need for unity among his fellow Tamasheq speakers. The band continued playing through the new album, following up with “Tchinta” and “Sousoume Tamacheq” before taking a moment to commend Philly for being a city of love and support exclaiming, “We love you Philadelphia!” Following this declaration of love, the Nigerien quartet cranked their amps and rallied a captivating final performance of one of their most popular tunes, “Chismiten.” They then thanked the crowd and left the stage.

Mdou Moctar | photo by Gavyn Green for WXPN

But as an avid fan of Mdou’s live performances, I knew this was only a feint. Fans cheered for one more song, and Mdou soon returned to the stage alone, armed with only his guitar, and began to play. It was a contemplative tune; no lyrics, just slow and intricate picking that commanded a solemn silence from the audience below. After a final strum, he spoke directly to the crowd about the war in his home country of Niger. He pondered over why world leaders seek violence, and wished that countries could instead dissolve borders and grow together in peace, respect, and recognition of culture. The crowd wholeheartedly agreed, clapping and cheering as the rest of the band returned for the true encore.

Mdou’s guitar began to sing one last time, slowly picking up pace before flying madly into the opening moments of “Imohaur.” The band followed suit, and tore into a near ten minute jam of the blues rock banger. Mdou jumped across the stage Chuck Berry style, all the while soaring across the fretboard, only stopping on occasion to encourage audience members to clap along with the infectious, intertwined groove of Michael Colton’s bass and Souleymane Ibrahim’s drumming. Then, just as the groove was dying down, Mdou leapt into the crowd, guitar and all, dancing and shredding with the audience in a beautiful, lighthearted moshpit. Members of J.R.C.G. returned to the stage to share in the comradery, dancing with the band as they gave one final farewell to Philadelphia and lovingly left the audience with a night to remember.

Listen to Mdou Moctar’s latest album Funeral for Justice here and read more about the record in XPN’s recent review here.