CAMBRIDGE -- By 10:45 p.m., those in the long line snaking around the corner in the extreme cold would soon be grumbling. Word at the front of the line was that 25 more tickets were available for the night's show. Inside the Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, the coat check was already full. And before the band even started, a tall man with an enormous, furry Russian hat was dancing circles around his friend, in anticipation of the music.
Such fanfare Friday night was somewhat surprising, and heartening, to see for the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. Fans are used to this response in the band's home base in Brooklyn, N.Y., but here in the Boston area, it was proof that an audience, one willing to brave subzero winds and a sold-out venue, has arrived for this Afrobeat revivalist band.
Antibalas, a collective of 14 musicians, is what you might call the next wave of world music, particularly African music.
Martin Perna assembled the group in 1998, and word of mouth and live shows have yielded considerable hype. The spirit of Fela Kuti, Afrobeat's Nigerian godfather and Antibalas's prime influence, dominated the evening. Other times, as on the slower, more avant-garde jazz jams, Sun Ra came to mind.
Antibalas (which means "anti-bullets" in Spanish) has released two albums on the Ninja Tune label, but what gets lost in translation is what you saw live at the Middle East on Friday. In one corner, you had three guys smiling and shifting, in synch, from one foot to the next. Fists flew up when a soloist stepped to the mike. Two women from the audience were hoisted onstage and danced as if they were in their living rooms. The higher the notes the saxophonist played, the higher the crowd's hands waved.
There were few lyrics, at least discernible ones. And no one minded. The extent of verbal rapport equaled various shout-outs of "Everybody say, `yeah, yeah!' " And they did every time. Even the band noticed the crowd's zeal. "We've played here something like eight or nine times now, and every time we come to Boston, you guys look at this band like a painting," one musician said. "But tonight everybody's getting down over here and over there. What's going on tonight?"
Antibalas played mostly from its sophomore album, "Talkatif," and no song seemed to finish in less than 10 minutes. If any did, it certainly didn't feel like it. But it's tricky to label Antibalas a "jam band." Its purpose is not just to get you dancing, but thinking. Toward the end of the show, one musician took the mike for a heated call to fight Halliburton and "the strip mining of Mars." Then another epic jam ensued, and everyone kept bobbing their heads, spinning, and dancing: their own nation under a groove.