Fantastic Negrito only had about 50 minutes to initiate the crowd at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to his brand of spirited blues and soul music last week. Equipped with a big voice, a big personality, and a full band, Fantastic Negrito brought a high level of energy and a little rock ‘n roll chutzpah to the stage.
Negrito has a backstory that adds to the authenticity of his art. He hustled in the streets of Oakland as a young man. He grew disillusioned with the music industry after signing a record deal that crushed his creativity, leading him to give up music altogether. Only after a car crash that left him in a weeks-long coma, and later, the birth of his child, was he drawn back to creating music.
With a sound that’s anchored in the Delta Blues, and a newfound confidence in his writing and delivery, Fantastic Negrito has garnered a lot of recent attention. In 2015 he won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, and in 2017 he won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album for his work, The Last Days of Oakland.
Now on tour opening for Sturgill Simpson, Fantastic Negrito is bringing his sound to an ever-expanding audience. He thanked Simpson for giving him a job, and later used the two artists’ different upbringings (Simpson’s in Eastern Kentucky, his own in Oakland) as an example of positive cultural diversity and unity. He busted out some dance moves and displayed the range of his voice, which went from deep Delta Blues crooning to pained rock ‘n roll reminiscent of Jack White, often in the same song.
Although nearly all of the songs were his own, he did showcase his variation of Leadbelly’s version of “In The Pines.” After mentioning somewhat casually that one of his brothers had been shot in the head, he said that his mother buried her son one day, and “still cooked dinner that night.” He then dedicated the song to his mother and all strong women everywhere, slightly adjusting the lyrics to better reflect his own story.
There’s a reason why musicians known for relying on experience and raw emotion to guide their writing and performance, such as Simpson and the late Chris Cornell, have invited Fantastic Negrito to join them on the road. It’s not just that the music is good. It’s because they draw their creativity from the same deep well.