“When we first heard we were gonna play Yoshi’s,” said Chuck D last night, after “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” opened the set, “we knew it was a historic jazz club. We said, ‘We know we can’t rage against the machine in that motherfucker.’ What do I do, wear my Sam Cooke suit? Do some Sonny Rollins shit?”
It must be a common question for the many who’ve played Yoshi’s since it began regularly hosting hip-hop shows a couple years ago, from names like the Pharcyde and Foreign Legion to Mos Def and De La Soul: how to adapt? Or is it even required, since Yoshi’s seems to be adapting to hip-hop? It only makes sense for the Bay Area’s most famous jazz club to embrace the next great American artform, and the venue works well for it. Yes, the sound system was designed for Steinways and not Serato (Bass: How low can you go? Not very low), but the small stage, standing room and temporary bars on either side of the crowd fit the scene perfectly.
To a totally sold-out, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, Public Enemy played a 90-minute set of every hit one could want to hear. “911 Is a Joke,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “Bring the Noise,” “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic,” “Burn Hollywood Burn”—and yes, most of the songs were over 20 years old. Age coupled with the red-velvet environs gave the night a nostalgic vibe, and on top of two decades already taking the incendiary edge off these songs, they were mitigated further by a general onstage playfulness.
The set featured Kool & the Gang and White Stripes riffs; an ongoing game of “toss the mic”; a James Brownian rule that anyone who messes up has to do 10 pushups; an “invisible studio fader” routine and of course, the ongoing antics of Flavor Flav. “I wanna thank y’all for makin’ Flavor Flav the number-one reality TV star of the decade!” he shouted at one point, during a long monologue about his “second job” on a television show (involving girls defecating on the floor, among other things). And yet it wouldn’t be Public Enemy without him—Chuck D even gave a little “every family has one” defense of Flav, if anyone doubted their closeness.
As for the music? The night was billed as Public Enemy “with a live band,” but as Chuck D pointed out, they’ve been playing with a live band since 1999, inspired by a tour of Japan with the Roots. Chuck D has said in interviews that he wasn’t ever really into jazz, that it was more his dad’s thing, but there was plenty of flash to go around last night. New bassist Davy D at one point let Flav take over for “Welcome to the Terrordome” while the guitarist played solos behind his back; Flav even hopped on the drum set at the end.
And though Chuck D didn’t break out any freestyles (“I’m the least talented member of the group,” he quipped), his between-song improv touched on the importance of the Bay Area, referencing Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power, Etta James and Johnny Otis right on up to Too Short, DJ Q-Bert and JT the Bigga Figga. “Bay Area independent hip-hop always did the thing,” Chuck D said in homage, “and they just never got support of local radio.”
It’s knowledge like that which separates Public Enemy from the rest. By the end of the set, Chuck D was wearing a “Justice for Oscar Grant” shirt and Flavor Flav was railing against racism and separatism. In the shadow of a chilling live version of “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” and the shooting there last week, it was clear that the progress Public Enemy fought for twenty years ago is still elusive. While everyone in the place threw hopeful peace signs in the air, set closer “Fight the Power” felt more like a party than a war, but there’s still a lot of bite in Public Enemy. Relevant bite, at that. Even in a jazz club. Thank goodness.
EXTRA POINTS: I dunno if it was P.E.’s doing or what, but playing the great Funky Riddims compilation Bay Area Funk before the show was a nice touch. (“Foxy Girls in Oakland.” Listen to it!)
CELEBRITY SIGHTING: Those eyes didn’t deceive you—Aesop Rock was in the crowd.
Photos by Liz Seward.
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In the hip-hop version of nostalgic rock ‘n’ roll packages like Art Laboe’s Memories of El Monte or Alan Freed’s American Hot Wax, the 2010 Rock the Bells tour barreled into a packed Shoreline Amphitheatre to revive the golden age of hip-hop with a particular zeroing in on the magical year of 1993. That year, after all, saw releases of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)—all iconic albums, and all performed “in their entirety” at Rock the Bells on Sunday.
Notably, though, none of the acts adhered to the “in its entirety” concept. Rakim purportedly performed Paid in Full in its entirety, but excluded three songs from the album and scattered the others, out of order, throughout a greatest-hits set. This set the stage of artists bending toward hits from classic albums rather than staidly presenting them cover-to-cover. While at first this seemed like a bit of false advertising in action, it was eventually evidenced that when deep album cuts were dutifully unearthed—Tribe’s “God Lives Through,” say—energy levels suffered.
At a show like Sunday’s, one had to set aside valid concerns about hip-hop getting older and leaning on its past rather than looking to its future. For all the chatter about the genre being in a slump, there is so much life and vitality to the music presented on Sunday to get hip-hop through the longest dry spell. No one tugged at their goatee or scribbled in their notebook about these concerns. You don’t worry about shit like that when an epic lineup is playing out in front of your eyes.
Rakim opened with “My Melody,” played the part of Eric B. by cutting up lines from “I Know You Got Soul” on the 1200s, got the Bay Area crowd to boo Los Angeles and dedicated songs “to all the mommies out there.” Standing like an impenetrable wall of skill, he moved deliberately around the stage to rearranged Paid in Full cuts alongside later hits “Know the Ledge” and “Don’t Sweat the Technique.”
Scheduled early in the day at 1pm for too many empty seats, it felt like Rakim got little love for someone generally regarded as the most innovative and influential MC of all time. He didn’t seem fazed. He told security to lay off so the people could cluster near the front of the stage, absolutely killed tracks like “Microphone Fiend” and “I Ain’t No Joke,” and at one point planted his Nike shoe on the monitor, licked the back of his thumb and deftly cleaned off a tiny fleck of dirt stuck to otherwise spotless sneakers. Smooth.
“When I get off stage,” he warned of the massive lineup to come, “it’ll get crazy. And then it’ll get crazier.”
“Hip-hop is not that Hollywood bullshit!” yelled Immortal Technique, on the side stage. “Hip-hop is being one with the people!”
He then finished a song with a chant of “Fuck Cops,” and then explained himself. “I know some of you out there don’t agree with that last song. You might be like, ‘My dad is a cop. He works hard and put himself in danger to keep the country safe.’ Well you know what? Fuck your dad! Fuck your family! And fuck cops!”
This didn’t go over well with some. While Immortal Technique talked about his recent trip to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, a dude in the crowd threw a soda bottle at him. It missed, but the audience was all too glad to point the guy out. Immortal Technique’s entourage ran off the stage, into the crowd, and cornered the guy. It looked hectic, but then security intervened and dragged the dude to be thrown out at the gates.
“The crowd will always be filled with one agent provocateur,” quipped Immortal Technique. “You got off soft.” After his set, he stayed at the merch booth for two hours, signing autographs.
Lauryn Hill was 45 minutes late, and by the time she finally came out and finished her extended rock version of “Lost One,” her first song, it was 5:35—the end of her set, according to the schedule. If the stickler Bill Graham had still been in charge at Shoreline, he’d have unapologetically pulled her off stage right then as punishment for tardiness. Rock the Bells allowed her a full set anyway, albeit a shortened one; in the ridiculously long wait before she took the stage, roadies twice came out and crossed songs off all the set lists.
In Sally Jessy Raphael glasses, a black sequined cap and a homeless-chic green trenchcoat covering an early-’90s high-waisted getup, Hill displayed all the same hopeful energy of her show earlier this year at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa by churning her arms wildly and strutting in insanely high four-inch heels. Things looked grim when she left the stage ten minutes in, but returned wearing different shoes. Probably a wise move.
The crowd seemed confused by her new arrangements, and didn’t move much until she got into Fugees tracks like “Ready or Not” and “Fu-Gee-La,” which opened the floodgates for mayhem. Hill performed everyone else’s verses, and displayed her recent desire to be taken seriously again after a long rough patch. By the time she ended with “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the sting of her late arrival was nicely salved.
“I can only introduce this next group,” said Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg, solemnly, “by saying that this is my favorite group of all time. Rock the Bells, please welcome to the stage… A Tribe Called Quest!” Except Tribe wasn’t ready yet, and when a rushed Ali Shaheed Muhammad emerged from the wings and quickly started the intro to Midnight Marauders on the turntables, he shot Rosenberg an icy stare. Oops.
As mentioned, Tribe actually stuck somewhat to the material from Midnight Marauders, even performing late-in-Side-B cuts like “Lyrics to Go,” which you’ll never hear at a regular Tribe show. The “Midnight Lady” voice popped up from time to time in the set, they did everything on the album except “8 Million Stories,” “We Can Get Down,” and “Keep it Rollin’,” and Q-Tip remarked that Midnight Marauders and Enter the Wu-Tang came out on the same exact date in 1993.
But the heat came when they brought out Busta Rhymes for “Scenario,” “Check the Rhime” and “Award Tour,” which saw Q-Tip running out into the amphitheater and working the fans in a show-stopping, all-star set closer. Tribe, Busta, Jarobi all onstage, simply sliding into place? Um, best part of the festival?
“It’s just like 15 guys all shouting the same thing and shitting on each other’s verses,” remarked a companion before the Wu-Tang Clan came on, and in a way, he was right. Wu-Tang, however, also adhered pretty strictly to the in-its-entirety thing, and it’s pretty thrilling to see all those guys on stage at the same time.
The role of Ol’ Dirty Bastard was filled by Ol’ Dirty’s son, who styled his hair in the same fashion and wore an oversized “R.I.P. ODB” T-shirt. He was clearly the most excited to be on stage, but the Wu held it down, and I tell you, the place was going bazonkers.
“I saw this shit on stage last night,” said MC Supernatural, introducing Snoop Dogg, “and what you’re about to see is epic. It’s like a movie.”
Snoop’s set was the perfect way to end the long day—laid back, entertaining, and for the sonically inclined, perfectly EQed. He had a tricked-out bike and a fire hydrant onstage. He had a picnic table covered in Olde English 40 ozs. He had the entire Dogg Pound (sans Nate Dogg). He had a giant backdrop of the cover to Doggystyle. He had full-budget video interludes to match all the skits on Doggystyle. He had a guy in a gigantic full-body dog suit. He opened with the bathtub skit, had the Lady of Rage deliver “G Funk Intro” and launched majestically into “Gin and Juice,” blunt in hand. It was beautiful.
Snoop also really took time to paint a picture of where he was at when making the record. He explained that “Gs Up, Hoes Down” had to be taken off the record due to sample clearance issues. He told the story of proposing “Ladi Dadi” to Dr. Dre: “When I was working on this album, Doggystyle, I told Dr. Dre I wanted to do something that’d never been done before. I wanted to redo this song I loved when I was a kid. And he said, ‘Okay, but we gonna fuck with it.’”
By the whole crew exiting the stage after every few songs, the set had the feel of a theatrical play, divided into acts and narrated by the Greek chorus of video interludes. And yet it was when Snoop broke the fourth wall that the show carried most of its weight. “Who here really did buy Doggystyle when it came out?” he asked. “Who had it on cassette? Who had it on wax? Who had it on CD? Were CDs even out? I was scared of the CD, man, I had the motherfuckin’ tape. Yeah. East side, G side.”
Warren G performed “Regulate” to represent the non-Snoop hits of the era, and the whole Dogg Pound even performed the posse cut “Stranded on Death Row,” from The Chronic. (“We wanted to show the world that we weren’t just gangsta rappers, but that we were MCs.”) And even though he ended with “Drop it Like It’s Hot” and “I Wanna Rock,” the set was a very well-done, heartfelt homage to a groundbreaking, bygone era.
“Doggystyle, man,” Snoop mused, near the end. “This shit is crazy. All my people on stage right here? I’m havin’ a moment right here.”
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I’ll get to the bands, but the first thing anyone noticed, surely, is the freak scene outside the gates of Outside Lands. It’s what you’d envision concerts in the park to be like back when concerts in the park were free. In the short walk between parking my bike (thanks, SF Bike Coalition) and the main entry, I was offered $2 beers from a stack of 12-packs piled on a skateboard, $1 pot cookies from a brown grocery bag, yelled at by a woman for no reason who shouted “KEEP LAUGHING! THIS STAND-UP COMEDY ACT AIN’T FREE!,” warned to get out of the way while security caught and escorted out an unsucessful gate-crasher, watched in amazement at a sprinting, successful gate-crasher, and had to tell a guy no, but thanks, I’d rather you not super-soak my arm.
Then it’s over the hill and into the festival, with corporate booths (“Free Rolling Stone T-Shirts!”; no takers), even more corporate tents (the “Chase Freedom Lounge,” yeah right, like anyone thinks a credit card gives you freedom) and no free water except from the lovely people staffing the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic’s Rock Med table. I’ll say it until the day I die: All festivals should have a free drinking fountain. At least a garden hose, man.
The night before, I’d DJed this really ridiculously epic wedding reception at the Union Hotel in Occidental, and the exact feeling that festivals aim to provide—Everyone United Through Music!™—was undeniable in a tiny little redwood-lined ballroom. It was fun, but honestly, I don’t know that Everyone United Through Music!™ is such a desirable goal, because the more people united in their excitement over a band, the greater the chances of that band being pretty lame and middle-of-the-road. On a semi-related note, there’s no way around the fact that this year’s Outside Lands lineup is the weakest yet.
Mayer Hawthorne killed it. I’ve got a weariness of the oversaturated retro-soul train perennially chugging out of the same station for the last ten years, but there’s no denying Hawthorne’s enthusiasm. The crowd was in the palm of his hands—he stopped, held up one finger, they cheered; he shook the hell out of his tambourine, they cheered; he got everyone to imitate rain with their fingers, they cheered. Impeccably dressed in a custom suit, Hawthorne had a great band with vintage analog gear, synchronized backup dancers and three-part backing harmonies.
“I love records, I’m a vinyl junkie,” Hawthorne said at one point. “Y’all got one of the best record stores in the universe here—Amoeba.” He’s right! He then related a funny story about being mistaken by an autograph seeker, in the aisles at Amoeba, for Michael Bublé. Who knows if the story was really true, but you can kind of see the resemblance.
The Devil Makes Three are great, and always have been great, and it’s nice to see them finally selling out shows and getting props. Theirs is an instructional story for bands on taking the very slow, hardworking path, which is also a story about taking the very broke, no-money-havin’ path. I’d heard from a friend who saw their packed show at the Independent a couple nights before that they’d gotten “loose” and “noodley,” which actually sounded cool, but at Outside Lands no loose noodles answered the roll-call.
They opened with “For Good Again,” a sardonic story about communal living and starting a band, and there are some lines in that song which define the Devil Makes Three for me: “Everybody who’s anybody, in my opinion,” sings Pete Bernhard, “at one time lived in somebody’s hallway.” Lines like that are comfort food for punkhouse graduates, and even though I technically never lived in a hallway, I thought about my days living in the laundry room, or the attic, or the garage, or the closet, or the unfinished frame house, and felt a little better about myself. Thanks, Pete.
Then I saw a man with his shirt wide open. He had two bellybuttons. No kidding.
So like I said, there’s a lot of corporate tents at Outside Lands. In these tents, there’s DJs, or free wi-fi, or short performances in intimate settings by bands who are playing the larger stages. The only thing is that to get into these tents, you have to own a certain kind of credit card, or “like” a stupid brand on Facebook, or sign up for spam email, or utter a cringe-worthy phrase like “Let’s go to ‘Inspire’ by Heineken.” (Also, what the hell were those plastic stove knob things that Chase was handing out? Does anyone know? For real. I saw them all over the ground 20 feet after the dude was handing them out. No one knew what they were. Total sense this made = 0.)
That said, KUSF is a kickass radio station. Their Outside Lands tent was open to everyone, free of irritating marketing, and when I walked by the Budos Band was rocking a tiny stage. The bassist played his bass in this ridiculous upside-down fashion, and the bari sax player looked possessed at times. A little bit Mulatu, a little bit Fela, all Daptone, really tight grooves, and a nice surprise on the way to Janelle Monáe. It was great!
(Note to KUSF: I just wanna say that by NOT making me sign up for anything to chill in your tent, you have earned my loyalty and respect. See how it works in the 21st Century? There’s no jobs out there because no companies are making any money, so companies pump up their marketing team until everyone’s so nauseatingly sick from the onslaught of marketing that only a complete lack of marketing achieves the desired result of the public subconscious reacting positively to your brand, but I digress. The Budos Band is cool as shit and KUSF is wonderful.)
Janelle Monáe wins the showmanship prize of the year based on her Outside Lands set alone, and to think she does it night after night after night is unreal. Even her soundman was rocking out—like, hard—and he’s someone who watches this happen every night, over and over. Janelle Monáe! Whose brain works as fast as hers? Whose body works fast enough to receive lightning-fast impulses from said brain? Who can sing, rap dance in just one show? (Kangol, Mr. Sophisticata, but I digress yet again.)
Monáe was fifteen minutes late due to a late flight, a fact that no one’s going to remember because her set ruled. She took to the stage in a black hooded cape, sang the hell out of her songs, danced up a tornado and laid forth a watertight case for stardom. When “Tightrope” first hit, I couldn’t shake Monáe’s very formal, clean presentation. There was something eerily obedient in her manner, as if her talent had been refined and polished beyond normal human behavior. But contrary to the unwritten code of alleged musical “purity,” talent doesn’t have to sloppy to be authentic, and trained singers can also be great singers. Seeing Monáe live reinforces these concepts.
I had been staring at the stage, covered in instrument cables, wondering if Monáe might accidentally step on one and slip while dancing. Alas, she’s got this problem solved by putting a special dance riser in front of the drums, which also meant that people way in the back could see Monáe’s dizzying footwork. She turned in a memorable set, to say the least, including Chaplin’s “Smile,” probably the greatest song about depression ever written. When she ended with “Tightrope,” I walked around the crowd and came upon a dude who was doing backflips and smoking a joint at the same time. Amazing.
Al Green was on his game.
I last saw Al Green in Sonoma, turning in a smooth, by-the-numbers show for middle-aged wine drinkers. It was great, but man, it was so refreshing to see the guy in front of thousands of kids in tight jeans and neon Ray-Bans. Especially when there’s a lot of retro-soul acts here today—Janelle Monáe, Mayer Hawthorne, the Budos Band—it’s nice to have Al Green arrive to show them how it’s done.
In a routine that’s familiar by now, he took the stage, throwing out dozens of roses and repeatedly saying “I love you.” It may be routine, but when Green does it, it doesn’t feel like schtick. He implored the crowd to sing along. He shouted out California. He wished for stairs leading down into the crowd and made fun of the “paparazzi” in the photo pit. He genuinely wanted to make a connection with people. I’d say he succeeded.
There are things you forgive Al Green. Taking a swig of Gatorade partway through the second verse of “Let’s Stay Together” is one of them. (The chorus, which everyone knows by heart and sings loudly, would be a much more appropriate spot to take a break.) Performing snippets of “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Bring It on Home to Me” and “My Girl” instead of his own songs is another. Why? Because his history, which is weighty in itself, is matched by his current-day pipes and patter. Wailing gospel high notes, hip-bumping to the downbeat, blowing kisses to the ladies—just owning it.
Afterwards, from the direction of Speedway Meadow, we saw a swarm of bodies who for some reason chose to watch Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes instead of Al Green, and I usually don’t pity people for following their internal compass, but man.
Garage a Trois. Last song. “1969” by the Stooges. The vibraphone player, Mike Dillon, reached over for a mic and bumped some percussion, which toppled to the floor. A sound guy approached, like he was going to reprimand the guy. Dillon saw him coming and executed a flying, head-first leap over the vibes, crashing to the ground and knocking over more stuff. He got up and dry-humped Skerik, the saxophone player. Then he kicked Skerik in the head. Noticing the mic had come unplugged, he threw it up in the air and into the crowd. It was nuts.
When the song was over, the soundmen looked relieved.
Once upon a time there was a band called Chromeo. The best moment of Chromeo’s set came when a ton of people outside the festival banded together on JFK drive and crashed through the fence. A cheer emitted from the crowd when dozens of people made it in without paying. (Watch the video here.) If you lived through the 1980s you’ve heard Chromeo before. The end.
Painfully apparent when Phoenix kicked off with “Lizstomania” was that Thomas Mars was singing along to a doubled backing track. Ouch! Except everyone was going so nuts they probably didn’t notice. The coolly detached Mars hopped into the crowd, whipping people into even further of a frenzy. I wonder what the poll results would be if each fan at the gates was asked if Phoenix should be headlining instead of Kings of Leon.
Nas: Yankees hat. Damian Marley: Dreads down to the floor. Hype man: Waving a Lion of Judah flag. Backing band: Solid. Backup singer: Wearing a Bob Marley T-Shirt. Work it, baby!
Damian Marley shouted something about legal marijuana, and the field went nuts. I missed it, but according to the East Bay Express, Nas at one point called Africa a “country.”
“I’m lookin’ out in this crowd,” declared Mike Ness, in that oh-so-Mike-Ness way (see: Live at the Roxy), “and I’m seein’ some scary lookin’ criminals… If any of you out there are considering a life of crime, I seriously discourage it!” Sure thing, Mike.
Zen moments come at unexpected times. Social Distortion playing “Ring of Fire” was one of them. Why did it move me? What about it was special that wasn’t, the dozens of other times I’ve heard it? I can’t say. Especially when Mike Ness gave it this strange introduction about Johnny Cash: “This was written by one of my heroes! He’s not a hero because he had great hair or wore all black, but because there was a time in this country where people thought good white music could exist without black music! I tell ya, without this guy we’d all be sittin’ on the front porch blowing into a jug tryin’ to make a tune!”
I’d never seen Social Distortion. When I was 13 and didn’t know anything about music I’d go to the Wherehouse in the mall and look at the cassette tapes, selecting my purchase based entirely on the names of the bands. This is how I wound up with Killer Klowns From Outer Space by the Dickies, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death by the Dead Kennedys, and Prison Bound by Social Distortion. I thought Social Distortion was a raw name, and was kind of bummed when I got home to find it was basically country music instead of thrash.
Kings of Leon were up next, but so was RVIVR across town at Thee Parkside. I guarantee you that a thousand birds could shit on RVIVR’s heads and they’d keep playing. You can’t say the same for Kings of Leon, so I hopped on my bike and rode back to my car at Ocean Beach. I love this part of Golden Gate Park. It’s downhill all the way, past the buffalo and the casting pools and the archery field, and out on the Great Highway the sun and the fog and the water made a beautiful canvas behind that huge wooden windmill.
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The long-hoped-for resurrection of Lauryn Hill, a dream seeming to slip further away with each year and each incoherent concert, took a giant step closer to fulfillment tonight at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa.
We may never know what exactly has plagued Hill these last eight years, forcing her to shirk the limelight, cancel tours and sabotage her reputation, just as we may never know how she became capable of triumphantly returning to the stage in 2010. One thing is evident: in Santa Rosa, of all places, the 35-year-old singer finally showed she craves dearly to be taken seriously again. Reinvigorated with enthusiasm, she inhabited the music, conducted the band, belted improvised shout-outs and thanked the crowd—all in the first song. “I love you,” she exclaimed to a field of fans. “It’s so good to see you.”
If it weren’t for the harlequin outfit, bulky hoop earrings and heavy metal guitar solos, it was almost like seeing the Lauryn Hill of old.
Outwardly struggling with fame, Hill has long evinced a complete dread of pleasing the public (see: Unplugged 2.0), but in a 75-minute set of Fugees classics and Miseducation tracks in Santa Rosa, she refreshingly aimed to do just that. From breakneck set opener “Lost Ones” to the slam-dunk closer “Doo Wop (That Thing),” Hill showed a genuine desire to again fulfill her talent.
It started rough. Scheduled to go on at 6pm, Ms. Lauryn Hill, as she requires to be billed, came onstage only after her DJ bored the crowd with a half hour of clunky, unblended snippets from the likes of “Purple Haze,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Pass the Dutchie” and “Bam Bam.” The presence of two large teleprompters at the foot of the stage, for lyrics, added to the slowly mounting despair. By 6:29, when instructed to make noise for the umpteenth time, the teeming crowd could only wonder if Hill would arrive at all.
But grandly arrive she did, in an ’80s multicolored full-body jumpsuit that was only moderately silly in light of the get-ups donned by the average Harmony Festival attendee. “Lost Ones” set things straight in a ten-minute version that twisted through five different arrangements, and Hill’s recently-faded voice showed rejuvenated form with “When It Hurts So Bad.” By the beautiful “Turn Your Your Lights Down Low,” the crowd was in the palm of Hill’s hands, and comeback was in the air.
“We gonna do some old stuff,” Hill proclaimed, “but, but, but, but… there is a ‘but’… we gonna do some old stuff kinda new. Is that okay with you?” A medley of Fugees tracks followed, with Hill even taking over some Wyclef and Pras verses and singing OG sample material (“I Only Have Eyes For You”). And despite a generation’s collective memorization of the album versions, reworked songs with reggae and hard rock elements electrified Hill, who nailed every segue and spat out lightning-fast lines quicker than the crowd could sing along.
There were, sadly, two immediate drawbacks. One, Hill clearly has no concept at all of how live sound operates. Both between and in the middle of songs, she constantly complained about the stage and house mix, chiding the soundman to keep turning up every instrument and microphone according to her fleeting whims. The result was a washed-out din.
The other problem was that Hill is perhaps now too eager for public approval. From the ultra-fast tempos which, even with the teleprompters, she at times struggled to keep up with; to the claustrophobic arrangements for two guitars, two basses, two keyboards and three backup singers; to the “whooooo!”s and the “yeeaahhh!”s and the hasty leg-kicking, the concert had the effervescent taint of a Vegas show.
Realizing that Hill is simply giving people what they want—in preparation for her Rock the Bells dates, no doubt—is a blessing and a curse. She admirably tried for a time to break from fame’s mold, but it only resulted in bad music and psychological deterioration. With this greatest-hits set out on the road, her old fans are certainly satisfied, but what about staying true to one’s muse?
The question was forgotten each time Hill eagerly jumped into each song. “Pop this one, c’mon, let’s go!” she told her band, and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” set an entire field of festival goers aflame. “Thank you so much,” she said, as a sea of arms applauded wildly. “Thank you for your patience with us. Good to see you. Hope to see you soon.”
Lauryn Hill hasn’t made fans’ patience an easy task these last eight years, but let’s hope we see her in this kind of form again soon. Her emancipation might still not fit some people’s equation—I’ve already heard from people who were disappointed with the show—but the trainwreck curse is over and the resurrection is afoot. Now the fine-tuning begins.
When It Hurts So Bad
Turn Your Lights Down Low
How Many Mics / I Can’t Stand Losing You
I Only Have Eyes For You / Zealots
Ready or Not
Doo Wop (That Thing)
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A favorite pastime firmly rooted in the modern day has become looking over people’s shoulders at shows while they compose texts-in-progress. At last night’s Mos Def show in San Francisco, dude next to me gets another one of many Facebook updates throughout the night on his iPhone: “So-and-So commented on your status: ‘You’re updating your status more than you’re watching the show.’”
His response, thumbs twitching with Mos Def less than 10 feet away: “I’m pissed and he’s boring.”
Indeed, the crowd last night was subdued to Ritalin-like extremes while Mos Def pulled almost exclusively from his new record, The Ecstatic. And in a way, that album’s version of Hip Hop 2.0 isn’t entirely conducive to losing your shit. Like other off-kilter artists—Georgia Anne Mudrow, Shafiq Husayn, Declaime, Erykah Badu’s recent material—Mos Def is riding a weird phase where driving boom-bap beats have given way to implied rhythm. At one point last night he told people to stop clapping, which says a lot about where he’s at. He also stopped the show early on to ask the sound man for “some of that psychedelic sound” on his red bullet mic. The relatively low volume of the Independent’s sound system magnified it: this was not music for getting down to.
And people weren’t having it. Requests for “Definition,” “Respiration” and “Ms. Fat Booty” were met by Mos Def with a shit-I’ve-heard-this-so-many-time look and a schooling. “Stop doing that. That never works,” he said. “No one ever does the song you yell for. I create the magic of rock. You enjoy it.”
What people got instead was, to my mind, a really good look at an artist who’s trying, despite his fans’ reluctance, to stretch hip-hop into unchartered territory. It’s not just jazz and it’s not just rock. It’s a weird world of Mos Def’s own making, and which even he might not be comfortable in just yet. But he has his enablers, especially in the form of Jay Electronica, who was billed as an opener but essentially co-headlined. Jay’s famous for releasing 15 minute-long songs with no drums whatsoever and bursting lyrical over looped samples from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He has no official album out, just internet mixtapes and a huge buzz.
So Jay Electronica came out and killed—lots of a capella, lots of drumless samples—and for a while there Mos Def spent a good deal of time showering praise on Electronica (“You’re a genius, man”) and criticism on a heckler who kept shouting for “Exhibit B.” (“There is no Exhibit B! Exhibit C is Exhibit B! You’re shouting for something that doesn’t exist!..” ad infinitum.) Jay’s highlight was his one-two of “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit C,” and when he left the stage I counted four people around me leaving the show.
At the end of the set, Mos Def finally announced “Okay. And now… for the classics.” But the plural was a cruel tease. “Umi Says,” the most Ecstatic-like track off Black on Both Sides, closed the show. There was a lot of head-scratching out on the sidewalk, but I left feeling like at least someone is trying something new. And I say that as a fan who sold back his copy of The Ecstatic after a week.
Also—and I feel bad mentioning this at the end—the night was a benefit for Haiti, and organizers didn’t skimp on the pressing need for help. Pierre Labosierre of the Haiti Action Committee and Walter Riley of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund both spoke very, very eloquently about the history of Haiti and the truth about the situation on the ground. Freestyle whiz Supernatural did his usual amazing act while dropping “Liberation,” “Unity” and “Hope” into his “Three Words” routine. Mos Def talked about how Haiti’s independence represented the first uprising against slavery in history, and “When they’re suffering, it’s not just Haiti that’s suffering. It’s… it’s…”
“Freedom!” someone yelled.
“Right! Freedom. It’s freedom that’s suffering.”
(“Latinos!” yelled the Exhibit B guy. “I’m not sure what that has to do with what we’re talking about,” Mos Def replied dryly, “but right on.”)
So for real, whatever you think about his new album, or the show, or his direction, you’ve got to admit that the Haiti aspect of the night was a success. At $35 a head I’m sure it sent a lot of much-needed help, plus it did what a benefit should do, by both educating and entertaining the people. That is, if you were actually paying attention and not composing useless passive-aggressive tweets about the drunk girl next to you who kept hitting you with her purse.
“Well, San Francisco,” cooed Lady Gaga, wearing one of dozens of bazonkers outfits eclipsed in ridiculousness only by the feathers, leotards, Mickey ears, sequined chokers and ill-fitting hot pants donned by her audience, “this is our first date together, which means I can suck your cock and still feel okay.”
So yeah, let us hail the emergence of a new pop star and all that. Lady Gaga sang, danced and swore her way into the shamelessly superficial affections of San Francisco for nearly two hours tonight, asserting her perfectionist dedication to fame, fashion, sex appeal and music. In that order. She also loves to say “fuck.” She may love to say “fuck” more than making music. Crass, vulgar, loves it. Selections from the Gaga patter book:
“I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I have a pretty tremendous dick.”
“Let me see your fucking teeth! I am not a dentist! I’m a free bitch!”
“Do you like my show so far? If you don’t, I don’t care, ’cause you can fucking leave!”
“Do you want to fuck me? Come on, San Francisco!”
Adding up the costume changes, set changes, stories about her fans and her pushy record label and her days living in a studio apartment plus legs legs legs dance dance dance skinny skinny skinny epic chorus part dance breakdown red bikini flip hair #1 song in the country scream scream gay gay gay keytar fame fame aliens tinkerbell i love you i love you i love you i love you hundreds of counterfeit tickets outside dance dance dance fuck off dance rah-rah ah-ah-ah-ah skinny skinny fame crawl crawl shake shake singy singy sing song, Lady Gaga is decidedly here to stay. Despite sometimes not making very much sense when talking to a crowd.
“Some of you may not know where to fit in in the world, but know that you always have a place with me. When you are lonely, I’ll be lonely too. And that is THE FAME!!” Huh?
“The way my fans work their cameras, it’s like kings writing the histories of their kingdoms.” Huh?
But fuck it, she was genuinely appreciative of her fans—she thanked them, like, 30 times, I swear—and put on A PARTY-BLIZZARD OF A SHOW. Entire auditorium letting hella loose for “Just Dance,” “Paparazzi,” “Poker Face,” “Shameless,” and big cluster-love we are one closer “Bad Romance.” (It helped that her warm-up music was 35 minutes of MJ, which killed it more than opener Kid Cudi.) Everything on point, choreographed or improved with such fluidity so as to look choreographed, real live actual singing, backup dancers great, huge spectacle. “How to Give Fans Their Money’s Worth,” by Lady Gaga, coming soon from Da Capo Press.
Gaga makes a big deal of being “from the underground” and doing things her own way, and it’s true—no major label is going to call a meeting to say, “You know, you’ve got the sound, the look, the moves, but what you really need is a video screen of a waifish girl throwing up all over you. Maybe you should also put the barrel of a machine gun in your mouth when you’re at the piano and tell your audience to fuck themselves.” That’s all her.
But what Gaga has is a fulfillment of dual needs; one for that uncensored down-to-earthness and another for something that we kinda forget in all this dancing on the grave of the record industry that we’ve been doing. We need pop stars, no matter how obvious the myth. “The thing I hate more than anything is the truth,” bespoke Gaga at one point tonight, “I can’t stand the truth—in fact, I prefer a giant dose of bullshit.”
Fuck if Lady Gaga doesn’t have the whole illusion down.
Ah, the things you don’t get from other festivals. Hearing people on the shuttle bus talk about the night before and how much they drank. About the game of Scrabble that lasted until 2:30am and the crackhead sleeping in the hall. About how they’d love to move but their rent is low. “I’ll only move if I can buy a house, or get married,” says a woman pushing 40, “and neither is going to happen very soon.” She’s good looking. More talking. About how nice the shuttles are. “Grizzly Bear’s pretty cool,” says someone, to his girlfriend. “They’re like a mix of… of Yo La Tengo, and the Walkmen, and the Flaming Lips.” Amazing how his frame of reference encompasses today’s lineup.
I have written about the Treasure Island Festival time and time and time and time and time and time again. By now, it is a good friend and a bottle of pills: comforting, scenic and dependable, with enough variety and excitement for me to keep singing its praises. Word has obviously caught on, because this year’s festival, with a somewhat weak lineup, was the best attended yet. Both days were sold out.
Contrary to what you might overhear on the shuttle to the island, Grizzly Bear doesn’t sound anything like Yo La Tengo, the Walkmen or the Flaming Lips. Their new album, Veckatimest—the first time I heard it, I couldn’t believe I was enjoying it. (I regularly root for the “rock” contingent of “indie rock,” not the increasingly visible four-part harmony infiltration of indie rock.) There’s a prodding, experimental aspect to their compositions that I can’t let go of. “Two Weeks” may have been the summer hit, but give me long, intricate songs like “Fine for Now,” whose lyrics are a bunch of vague bullshit but whose music is sheer beauty.
They opened with
the Talking Heads’ “Warning Sign” “Cheerleader,” and played a brief set heavy on Veckatimest material, replicating almost exactly the precise tone and instrumentation of the album. Singer Ed Droste attempted to have some personality between songs, and failed, but their songs gave off a polished classicism that hid their complexity. What the hell were they doing playing so early, at 4pm?
One more reason to like Grizzly Bear: their website—and Droste’s Twitter feed—mentions whenever possible the options for buying tickets to the band’s shows without a shitty service charge. Also, my friend Kerri points out that Veckatimest is an anagram for Meat Vest? Ick! Luckily, their heads didn’t explode in the middle of “Two Weeks.”
I spoke too soon when I said something about Bob Mould lulling nostalgia hounds to sleep. Assuming Mould would play songs from his recent solo albums, I headed to the bathrooms, only to be pulled back by “The Act We Act,” the first song from Sugar’s Copper Blue. In fact, Mould represented Copper Blue hardcore. “A Good Idea,” “Changes,” “Hoover Dam”—was this for real?
It was a genuine stroke of luck. Mould’s regular bassist couldn’t make the show, so at the last minute he called up David Barbe, the bassist for Sugar, and throughout the set many, many nights in 1994 came rushing back to me. Yes! It was nostalgia! But of the entirely unexpected variety. Oh, sure, Husker Du fans got “Makes No Sense at All,” “In a Free World,” “Something I Learned Today”—but who’d'a thunk Mould would rock the Sugar songs so hard? It was like Prince playing a show of all shit from Graffiti Bridge.
I’ve never gotten into their Eastern European brass tip, but Beirut makes me glad for one reason and one reason only—because of their unlikely success, the independent San Francisco distributor Revolver is able to take more chances getting good, otherwise unheard music into stores. The plight of an independent distributor is a lonely one, and Revolver over the years has seen a ton of exclusive deals with labels and artists who decide they can do better with R.E.D. or Caroline and jump ship, leaving their early supporter in the dirt. When I see “Exclusively Distributed by Revolver USA” on the back of a hugely selling album like Gulag Orkestar, I am heartened for the DiCristina Stair Builders.
The Walkmen have the East Coast written all over them; they fuckin’ rule. What was decided at their first band practice? “Look, you guys, we’re gonna get vintage instruments and play them like nobody else played them. You, Hamilton, you gotta good voice, you’re the singer. Okay? But we gotta look tough. Or bored. Somewhere between tough or bored. Then we gonna write the best songs you ever heard.”
Bows and Arrows is a bonafide gem, and at the Outside Lands festival last year, even newer songs like “The New Year” floored me. I hope that they don’t turn into the Guadalcanal Diary of their day, i.e. a band with a fresh semi-retroish take on current trends who fades into Rockin’ Road Trip obscurity. More songs like “Thinking of a Dream I Had” ought to do the trick.
I ran into Hamilton Leithauser afterward; he told me the horn players—who were tight as hell—learned their parts five minutes before going on stage. Funny thing, going on tour and having to hire pickup musicians in each town.
The greatest psychedelic guitar work recorded in 1997 (not related to Jason Pierce) belongs to Yo La Tengo and the outro to the song “We’re an American Band” from I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. I have listened to this particular guitar solo more times than I care to remember, and I still haven’t fully figured it out—meaning that I haven’t tried to PLAY the thing, merely to comprehend it. Is there a ghost of an angry debutante inside the guitar? Did they bring an octopus in the studio to flail upon the strings? Can you keep feedback alive on an iron lung?
During Yo La Tengo’s second song, Ira Kaplan re-creates that same mayhem five feet from my face and I still can’t make heads or tails of it. I do know that what he did to his guitar didn’t constitute the accepted definition of “playing.” He sometimes put his fingers on the strings, just like he sometimes let it swing away from his body entirely to let the angry debutante do her thing. Maximized control in chaos environments. Rhythm section calm and holding. Snapped back together like elastic. Amazing.
The Flaming Lips have put out a new album, Embryonic, that reminds me of the Nobel Peace Prize—it’s getting a lot of acclaim simply for not being At War With the Mystics. If it could be chopped down to an EP, it would be perfect, but better yet is that it has shaken up the band’s live show, which though visually incredible has stayed pretty routine for about five years. I’ve seen them three times, and I swore that if Wayne Coyne smashed blood on his head and made a puppet nun sing “Happy Birthday” into a fisheye-lens camera yet again, I would scream.
As soon as the Decemberists finished, Coyne spent a good deal of time onstage helping his roadies set up their ever-more elaborate set. Then the music began. After walking atop the crowd in a plastic space bubble, shooting confetti from blaster guns, blowing fog around the stage, flinging ribbons to and fro and leading his band in “Race for the Prize,” Coyne settled into a friendly rapport with the San Francisco crowd, talking about the band’s first show at the I-Beam and how San Francisco had always felt like a second home. “Thank you for being the home of the freaks,” he said.
The band played a standard mix of “hits,” with new tracks like “Convinced of the Hex” sounding the most invigorated, but it was an obscure song called “Enthusiasm for Life Defeats Existential Fear” that reminded me most of the Flaming Lips’ magic. Musically settled squarely between soothing and weird, the song’s title alone could serve as the band’s mission statement, and it carried us across the Bay Bridge and back into the real world.
I love San Francisco. I love Ocean Beach, and I love biking through Golden Gate Park past the eucalyptus and bison, and I love getting closer and closer to tour buses, road barricades and the sound of distant bands warbling in the wind. I love dropping my bike off with the San Francisco Bike Coalition, and I actually kinda love running from stage to stage to see as many bands as I possibly can before riding back to the beach.
It didn’t used to be this way. I hated festivals. Too many bands, not enough time, way too much marketing, and the worst offense of all—no free water. All of these symptoms are present at the Outside Lands festival, and yet what can I say? I love Golden Gate Park, and love is blind.
The Outside Lands festival returned this year to a flurry of neighborhood complaints about noise and fan complaints about lineup, and the first thing we notice is that there’s way fewer fans and way more people shoving handbills in our faces than last year. Other than that, and the near-universally recognized weakness of this year’s headliners, the Outside Lands festival is pretty much the same as last year—with batting cages.
Right before Built to Spill goes on, a girl, about 19, asks me if I’ve ever seen them before. “Yeah, about 12 or 13 times!” I tell her. “I’ve never heard them,” she says, “but my friend told me they’re like Band of Horses. Are they like Band of Horses?”
I admittedly am biased when it comes to Built to Spill, and I feel bad that they’ve been given the unprestigious 2:30pm time slot on a Friday. What’s it like being a hugely influential band, only to have the younger generation care more about your stylistic debtors? The old way of thinking was to raise a bitter ruckus and let as many people as possible know that you haven’t been given your due.
The new way of thinking is that through either Zen or humility, Built to Spill are unfazed at their spot both on the festival schedule and in the tight-jeans handbook. They play “The Plan,” “Else,” “Car,” “You Were Right,” “Big Dipper”—perfect songs that don’t sound old. They play a new song from their upcoming album, with lyrics about Canada and locks on the door, and it sounds just as fresh. Guitarist Jim Roth breaks a string and changes it himself mid-song. Doug Martsch chirps his simple “Thanks.”
Afterwards, a fan is overheard saying, “Dude, Built to Spill and Vicodin… soooo good.”
The Dodos recorded an album recently and said fuck it, let’s just stream it online for everyone to hear. In this day and age, that isn’t shattering news, but in light of Visiter and its huge success, it’s admirably surprising that their record label was cool with essentially giving the anticipated follow-up away for free.
Even more surprising, for me, is that live, the Dodos are imbued with the full-on spirit of thrust. Their records have their mellow moments, but the noise made by just Meric’s acoustic guitar and Logan’s drums on stage is baffling. They have a guy playing vibes. Everyone sings along to “Fools.” Their San Francisco friends are out and about, but no one’s razzing them ‘cause they’re ruling it.
The best thing to do in San Francisco when there’s a lull in the day is to ride down to Amoeba to score some records by Dinah Washington, Jeru the Damaja, Dirty Projectors, Larry Young, Sunn o))). Hit up the liquor store on Stanyan and pound an entire 32 oz. Gatorade on the sidewalk. It’s hot, man. Bad day to wear black jeans.
Q-Tip takes the stage with a full band—guitar, bass, drums, DJ, and a wacky dude with star earrings and dyed red hair who plays Fender Rhodes, saxophone and keytar. I loved Q-Tip’s album from last year, The Renaissance, and he comes out to its lead-off track.
Q-Tip, of course, is commanding the stage; he’s one of the most charismatic hip-hop performers in history. He breathes in rhythm like the Meters, he throws his head back and howls like James Brown, and, in a brief tribute to Michael Jackson, hammers falsetto after falsetto. His band follows his every cue, hitting the floor and cutting the volume at the right times, rising with each scream.
People sometimes ask me who my all-time favorite rapper is. I won’t choose just one, but if all of the hip hop records in the world disappeared tomorrow, I might be placated if the albums made by A Tribe Called Quest were spared. So it’s exciting when Q-Tip hits the first verse of “Oh My God,” and when he flips the beat on “Sucka Nigga,” and when he closes out “Find a Way” with a full-on talk box solo by the wacky keyboard player. When he beatboxes the Brady Bunch theme song into “Bonita Applebum,” the crowd loses their minds.
“Turn off your phones, your iPhones, your Blackberries!” he shouts during an extended jam on “Electric Relaxation.” “We feelin’ the music right here!” The energy level keeps rising and rising. “Check the Rhime” follows, then “Scenario,” and every Tribe Called Quest fan in San Francisco is losing their mind.
And then, oh shit, it happens.
Phife and Q-Tip on the same stage performing “Award Tour” at Outside Lands may just be the highlight of the entire festival, for me and a handful of others. My only question: Why in the world didn’t Q-Tip bring him out on Tribe songs sooner, especially for the back-and-forth of “Check the Rhime”? Phife’s voice may not be in the best form, but any rapper who evidently carries a microphone around in his pocket is obviously ready to go on a moment’s notice.
Q-Tip acknowledges the history of the moment, says, “I don’t know when you’re ever gonna see that again,” and lets the crowd trickle away to “Life is Better.”
To answer your question, no, nobody threw panties at Tom Jones—at least not for the first few songs. I’m stumped. I remember hearing about Tom Jones issuing a statement about ten years ago asking people to stop throwing panties at him, but no one took it seriously. What’s the deal?
Jones sings “I’m Alive,” “Give a Little Love,” and “Green, Green Grass of Home.” During the fourth song, “If I Only Knew,” a lone red pair of panties flies through the air and alights near Jones’ feet. He ignores it. 40 seconds later, another pair of panties arcs toward the stage. Then another, and another, and another. By the end of the song, it’s just a crazy hailstorm of panties falling on Tom Jones, and I sort of feel sorry for him but I gotta admit, it’s also funny as hell.
He does “Hard to Handle,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and “Delilah,” and saves “It’s Not Unusual” for the end, when most of the curious and ironic onlookers have bailed to catch a painfully boring band called Pearl Jam.
I hope that eventually, someone will chronicle a history of the walk-on music that bands use to take the stage. Fans of Morrissey seem especially devoted to this, as are fans of Depeche Mode, who even released their pre-concert mix on a CD for their fans. Tom Waits played old blues 78s through tinny cone speakers on his last tour; Springsteen plays “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when he’s at a baseball stadium; classical recordings of great bombast are popular. Like so many other ephemeral pieces of the concert experience, walk-on music is something that’s forgotten halfway through the first song—and yet for a brief minute, after the lights go dim, it unites the entire crowd in an innervating herald.
Pearl Jam’s walk-on music is “Metamorphosis 2,” by Philip Glass. There’s some other songs that happen between that and our walking back to our bikes, and Eddie Vedder seems like a nice guy and all, telling the crowd to “keep track of each other and make sure that no one goes down,” but you know. It’s Pearl Jam: The Sound of the ’90s. They are completely and hopelessly dated. Sorry, grunge fans.
More photos after the jump.
1. If Beyoncé were placed inside a time capsule and sent into space, aliens would immediately decide to become friends with Earthlings.
2. Every outfit Beyoncé wore last night at the Oracle Arena in Oakland showed off her legs.
3. Three cheers to the cameraman for putting a feverishly hugging gay couple on the jumbotron during “If I Was a Boy.”
4. Beyoncé is like every pop superstar before her wrapped up in one but without the narcissism. “Ave Maria” was pure Streisand, leather beefcake dancers pure Madonna, ever-increasingly noticeable doses of Michael throughout.
5. Beyoncé now has the most touching tribute to Michael Jackson yet. End of the show, during “Halo,” a canned but nonetheless incredibly moving speech about how he showed her the way—preceded by a video of her when she was a child, emulating his moves, and concluded with altered lyrics about his lasting influence. It beats any other token tribute I’ve seen.
6. Mid-show: bass solo, behind the head, to “Billie Jean.” Beyoncé’s band is all-female, a fact she has every right to point out three or four times throughout the show.
7. Sorry, took a break there. Did I mention Beyoncé is our Earth’s ambassador to space?
8. The feminism of Beyoncé is what the Spice Girls always promised but never delivered: the “Be sexy, but own it, be in control of yourselves and support each other” feminism. Snippets of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” and Alanis Morisette’s’ “You Oughta Know” proved she knows her Lilith Fair history, but she makes being a strong woman seem way more exciting than the Lilith Fair ever did. (My heart will actually stop if Beyoncé adds “Double Dare Ya” to her set on this tour.)
9. Beyoncé’s brand of feminism also leaves little room for women who don’t look like Beyoncé, so the point might be moot.
10. People-watching prize: the group of middle-aged women wearing matching custom T-shirts, reading “Fun and 50.”
11. I did not text my special message to the jumbotron before the show, but the girl who told the entire arena she was going to lose her virginity after the show definitely did.
12. There’s a go-to look of wonder that Beyoncé splashes across her face at a moment’s notice, like she’s seeing God or something. Most of the time, I believe her.
13. Okay, okay—walking down the aisle, singing directly to her fans. Oh shit, singing directly to a small child! Holding his hand, looking right into his eyes, singing straight to him—and the kid looks bored, like he’s in math class. 20,000 lbs. of envy in the room.
14. The only thing more exciting than “Crazy in Love” is taking a bathroom break and seeing the Giants’ no-hitter up on the lobby screen. SO CONFLICTED.
15. Scratch everything I’ve just said. The most important thing about Beyoncé is that she resurrects the pop music ideal of mass emotional oneness: everyone feeling like everyone else feels exactly the way they do at that precise moment. This is actually her greatest tribute to Michael Jackson, whether she knows it or not. Evidence during last night’s show included a YouTube collage of “Single Ladies” dances (Hey, we all did that!), footage of the Obamas dancing at the Neighborhood Ball, during “At Last” (Hey, we all watched that!) and allowing the entire crowd to sing “Irreplaceable”’s first verse and chorus (Hey, we’re all doing this, right now, here, together!). Michael had that effect in droves across the world; no one besides Beyoncé has had it to such a degree since.
16. (Side note: “Minute” does not rhyme with “minute.”)
17. Those in the $500 front-row “diva zone” seats were deservedly doted upon, with multiple sweat-towels thrown, hands touched repeatedly, and one guy from Hawaii with a sign that said “It’s My Birthday” who got “Happy Birthday” sung to him. We’d joked about the people who paid $500 for seats, but damn.
18. Second stage, in the middle of the floor, about 25’x25’. Crazy-intimate. Everyone standing on chairs, crowding in tight, taking videophone footage, especially during “Video Phone.” Beyoncé crouching down, talking to fans, reaching out, “seeing God” wonder-face in abundance, genuine gratitude, asking people to say her name. People 100 ft. away in “diva zone” bummed.
19. “She’s sexy, but she’s sexy like a man,” says Liz.
20. End of show, after child-serenading, after Michael tribute, after walking through the crowd flanked by security, after outpouring of love in both directions, the phrase “I Am…” flashes on the screen. “I Am.” Surely, “Sasha Fierce.” No? “I Am…” “YOURS.” “I am yours,” Beyoncé says. “I will give you 100% of everything I have.” Unfuckwithable, because even though in reality Beyoncé’s one of the most private celebrities in the world, she’s just created a sociological time-emotion-music-love vortex in Oakland. How is it possible, night after night? With absolutely pitch-perfect, non-lip-synched singing? Is she even from this planet? Someone please explain.
Everything was rolling along nice and fine during Keyshia Cole’s show at the Paramount Theater in Oakland Sunday night when halfway though the set, to join Cole on “Let it Go,” who should grab a mic and emerge from the wings but… Lil’ Kim!
If the City of Oakland ever needs a fairly dependable—and loud—way to reenact the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, it should just let Lil’ Kim walk out onto the stage. The 3,000-seat theater went absolutely apeshit. Walls rattled. Fans rushed the aisles. For sixty seconds, it was uncontrolled mayhem, as if an violent act of nature was running its course. Then, with the song over, with a quick hug to Cole and a wave to the crowd, she was gone. Shit calmed down again.
Cole never quite had the crowd in her hands the way Lil’ Kim did, although not for lack of trying. Her nonstop choreography, her three wardrobe changes, her elaborate sets and gymnastic vocals all added up to an impressive display of hard work. But hard work alone is just that, and the sweat and energy Cole expels doesn’t cover up the fact that she’s touring on her weakest album yet. If Cole can get back to having classic material like “Love” and “I Should Have Cheated,” and if she can make performing those songs seem natural and effortless, she’ll be able to achieve her stated dream of headlining arenas instead of opening them—as she did the first two times I saw her, on tours with both R. Kelly and Lil’ Wayne. She’s got more talent than almost any other singer in R&B right now. She should have material to match.
After Lil’ Kim shook things up, a surprise guest visit by Too Short on “Didn’t I Tell You” was a welcome aftershock , and at the end of the set Cole took a few minutes to stop the music and thank her friends, family and fans in her old hometown for their support. She shouted out neighborhoods: “We got Murder Dubs in the house? You know I’m from Oakland when I say somethin’ like that.” It was a genuine moment, made more so at the end of a razzmatazz-filled spectacle. Then some dude took the mic and got the address of the afterparty wrong.
The-Dream is one of the greatest songwriters of the new century, and I’ve written about him a few times now. His records are brilliant in the way that early Prince records are brilliant (one of these days he will have his Purple Rain), and The-Dream’s hits for other people—“Single Ladies,” “Umbrella,” “Touch My Body”—need no introduction. But could he pull it off live, I wondered? Such is the post-ProTools landscape. I didn’t even know if the guy could sing on key.
Color me faithless. The-Dream was incredible live. Yes, he sang on key. More than that, he was simply electrifying to watch. He, too, talked openly to the crowd. Introducing “Falsetto,” a song about the noises one makes in bed, he instructed fans that “if y’all are sitting down for this song, then you’re getting’ old and you don’t know how to fuck.”
The night before the show, I drew up a set of dream Dream songs. My friend balked at “Purple Kisses,” and I felt redeemed that it was played. “Love vs. Money” also matched my expectations by being accompanied by guns fired in time to the intro’s gunshot sounds—a trick I’ve always wanted other bands to do—but died on the vine in the second verse after backup dancers interpreted a clock ticking down. Also: the first verse and the first verse only of “Sweat it Out,” rendered acapella.
The-Dream knows his hits. He interpolated both Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” at the end of “Nikki” and the Force M.D.s “Tender Love” at the end of “My Love.” He took his hat and glasses off and looked more like a completely different person than any other singer I know who takes their hat and glasses off. He swore often when talking about record executives choosing the wrong singles and his enthusiasm for the crowd’s support. His last song was “I Luv Your Girl,” and bearing witness to a theater of thousands of people singing its key line louder than any other line of the night was nothing short of incredible.