Gig review: Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids at Headrow House, Leeds

To kick off tonight's performance, Idris Ackamoor wonders around the audience whilst blowing into a droning yard-long reed instrument of possibly African origin, giving off every impression of a man just about to enter into a hypnotic state.

Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids at Headrow House, Leeds. Picture Janne Oinonen
Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids at Headrow House, Leeds. Picture Janne Oinonen

Once he gets up on stage and leads The Pyramids into the opening number in a spirited set dedicated almost exclusively to album latest An Angel Fell, it’s easy to feel similarly inclined to fall under a spell.

It can’t be all that rewarding to play to a scattered handful of people on cold Sunday night after close to half a century in the business. However, if Ackamoor and co. are disappointed by the meagre turnout despite the acclaim The Pyramids’ two comeback albums (the title track off 2016’s We Be All Africans crops up late in the set to supplement new material), it doesn’t show.

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Dressed in an extra-sparkly, distinctly plastic-y suit that a glittery 1980s funkateer ala Rick James or Bootsy Collins might have risked on a particularly flamboyant day, Ackamoor leads The Pyramids through a vibrant hybrid that churns up the most heady bits of the post-war African-American musical history whilst also nodding towards Ethiopian and Nigerian musical traditions; this latter element could be a nod towards the time the San Francisco-based ensemble toured Africa in the 70s, before the original Pyramids line-up called it a day in 1977.

Marginal, outlandish and obscure during their first spell of active service, The Pyramids’ points of reference have become more palatable to a bigger audience in recent due to the stellar work by, say, Kamasi Washington.

Ackamoor’s sax tone isn’t that far removed from Pharaoh Sanders, especially once he enters the more abrasive regions of his range. The Cosmic chants of Sun Ra’s Arkestra are in evidence on tunes such as the dub-hued Land of Ra, whilst Sandra Pointdexter’s violin - a rare choice of instrument for a group rooted (albeit loosely) in jazz - nod towards Ethiopian scales and styles. Whether in deep concentration during a sax showcase, pulling funky shapes with his secondary choice of weapon, a key-tar, or leading The Pyramids through a rousing approximation of a country-blues jug band amongst the audience in the finale, Ackamoor is a hugely compelling focal point, equal parts serious musician and a showman.

Just when the proceedings risk getting a little too laidback, Afrobeat agitator Fela Kuti gets a shoutout in the introduction to Soliloquy for Michael Brown; by the end of this by turns elegiac and furious epic bemoaning police brutality in the US, the 67-year old bandleader removes his omnipresent sunglasses and takes a quick breather to better admire the efforts of his stellar band. It’s ease to share his enthusiasm. If there ever was a show that deserved a full house, it’s this one.