View From the Middle Row, 12/21/10
About a week ago, I was fortunate enough to get guest-listed to "The Grouch Stole Christmas Tour," which has been selling out shows nation-wide and which I figured would be a particularly hot ticket in Oakland, since the majority of the line-up are hometown heroes. The night started off on the wrong foot as I somehow figured the show was on a Friday, and ended up correcting myself at the last minute and rolling out to it a bit late. I missed the opening act, Los Rakas, and didn't get a chance to seize a space front and center like I usually do because of the massive crowd. Still, I didn't completely designate myself to the rear, and got to watch full sets from Eligh, Brother Ali, and The Grouch from a nice space in the center of the crowd.
This was my first time seeing Eligh of Living Legends perform live, and he really impressed
me with his focused and well-balanced set. Eligh has been repping the West since the days of trading underground cassette tapes in the mid-90s, but has been on a musical hiatus for several years due to a nasty drug habit that he had to kick. His full rehabilitation was apparent in the strength of his performance, and everyone could tell how happy he was to be back on stage doing his thing in front of a hometown crowd. He performed a number of solid songs from his most recent album "Grey Crow" that emphasized the originality of his voice and his amazing flow. He also went into a couple of numbers from his older albums, and brought out a couple of local guests to assist him. Bay area vocalist Paris Hayes backed him up on a number with some sweet singing vocals, and Eligh's mother also came out to perform a duet with him off of their collaborative album "On Sacred Ground." It was a very entertaining set that left the crowd in a good mood, though a few of the more obnoxious Brother Ali fans insisted on shouting his name between songs.
Speaking of Brother Ali, he seemed to be the reason that many of the people in the crowd were there, myself included. Brother Ali has shown and proven over the course of three full length albums and a couple EPs that he's one of the nicest MCs in modern hip hop, and his live shows are generally a great showcase of how talented and soulful a rapper he is. The last time I'd seen him live was when he was touring for his 2007 album "The Undisputed Truth," so I was looking forward to seeing him perform some of his more recent songs. Well, big surprise, he did not disappoint. Brother Ali barreled through a number of his newer tracks like "The Preacher," "Fresh Air" and "Tightrope" with an ease that can only come from years of touring experience, transitioning smoothly from song to song and adding extra elements to each one to cater to a live setting. He was really feeling the Oakland crowd and got open with them between tracks, talking a lot about the success of the tour and about love and unity between people. I felt that there was a little too much of this talking at times, though Brother Ali has a soulful preacher quality to his voice that made it almost feel like watching an entertaining sermon at points. One of the more surprising elements he added to his set was a cover of his recently deceased friend Eyedea's "Smile," in which he improvised and freestyled the second verse, noting in one line that "Mickey [Eyedea] would have wanted it this way." He also kicked some of his older favorites like "Blah Blah Blah" and "Forest Whitiker," and got an enormous crowd response for every track. Great set from one of the stronger MCs working in hip hop today.
The Grouch, a Bay area favorite responsible for putting together the tour, closed things out as the headliner of the evening. While I have a great deal of respect for the Grouch's tireless work ethic and productivity, I've never been a huge fan of his music and this set was not on par with the other two in my opinion. There were clearly long-time followers of the Grouch in attendance who got excited over numerous songs from his catalog, and were chanting the lines word by word... I just wasn't one of them. Granted, Grouch did go out of his way to make his set special. He called Eligh to the stage to perform a bunch of G&E numbers, which was ill, and also got Bicasso of Living Legends up to help him with a few songs. I also appreciated the way that Grouch tapped into songs spanning his entire extensive catalog, including collab tracks like "Silly Putty" from Zion I's "Mind Over Matter." Still, I don't think that the set was really my cup o'tea in the end, though it didn't detract anything from what was otherwise a completely awesome show,
Here's a video of Brother Ali performing his song "Tightrope," off of the album "Us":