Coconut Cake at Jack of the Wood

Good luck finding local Congolese rumba band Coconut Cake on Facebook. Unless it’s an event page for one of the band’s all-too rare shows — like last weekend’s set at Jack of the Wood. But the project, led by multi-instrumentalist Michael Libramento, really isn’t elusive. It gets plenty of mileage just by word of mouth.

And for good reason. Like the confection it’s named for, Coconut Cake is complex, richly textured and sophisticated — and easily digestible. The current lineup includes (among others) Jason Krekel (The Krektones, The Moodees) on guitar, Ryan Oslance (Ahleuchatistas) on drums, Matt Shepard on bass and Ami Worthen (The Moodees) on auxiliary percussion. The only thing the evening was lacking was rumba dancers — too bad because Asheville is a dance town and the rumba is arguably the most seductive and bar-worthy of the ballroom dances.

There was dancing, though. It would have been hard to sit still — and that’s no surprise considering the lineup. But in a way, the instrumental set was a departure for all of the band’s members. Libramento is known for being able to play pretty much anything, from jazz to experimental rock. Lately he’s been playing bass with pop-rock outfit Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. It’s a great gig for an up-and-coming musician, but realistically, Libramento could probably play those radio-ready songs with one hand tied behind his back. A project like Coconut Cake gives him the opportunity to really showcase his musicianship.

And then there’s Oslance, a force of nature behind the drum kit in Ahleuchatistas. But for all of his might and wild energy in that band, on stage with Coconut Cake, Oslance was all control and taste.

Libramento’s guitar carried the melody in loops and flourishes of expressive sound. The bass was plenty melodic, too. Krekel, on rhythm guitar, stepped away from his usual role as the proficient frontman. In Coconut Cake both he and Worthen built a steady foundation on which the artfully nuanced songs could take shape. It requires seasoned players to be both that steady and that free of ego — to step back from the spotlight and simply give the music what it needs.

The entire set played out like a whole greater than the sum of its parts. A story that unfolded as it was being told — all warm notes and gentle breezes. A beachy scene infused with sunlight but more aligned with night time. Sultry evenings spent, sand between the tones, within earshot of pounding waves. A play of dark and light, rough and soft felt in the pulse of each song. A play of well-matched opposites, kind of like the band’s name.

Because coconut cake is a tropical dessert, but it’s also a funeral dish. Mourning and celebration, bitter and sweet. There’s sadness inherent in the rumba — the long, slow note that drags the beat, trying to make the moment last. Trying to wrest every bit of joy from the quick notes each time they cycle back around.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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