View From the Front Row, 2/23/11
Last night, I went and saw Awol One & Factor's Landmark Tour featuring the likes of Ceschi, Cars & Trains, Kirby Dominant, Megabusive and Abadawn at the Elbo Room in San Francisco. This show was part of the Farmer's Block series that Qwel & Maker were part of last year, which means that in addition to the music there was some art up on display and some vegan foods for sale. I tried a vegan flauta thing which was not bad and a peanut butter cupcake which was good, but refrained from spending any money on art and put down the bucks on a far cheaper rum and coke instead. The nature of the event drew a slightly larger crowd than I'm used to seeing at the Elbo Room, though Ceschi has always had a good draw of people when he's performed in the Bay Area so no surprises there.
Abadawn was the opener, with DJ Zone backing him up behind the boards. I hadn't heard any of Abadawn's music previously, but had heard from a friend that he put on a good show and knew of him through his Camobear Records affiliation. Well, I'm not sure if this was just an off-night for Abadawn, but to put it bluntly: I thought he sucked! It seemed like he was trying way too hard to impress the crowd with his rapping and stage antics, and didn't have the skills or originality necessary to make anyone care. To make matters worse, he seemed very indecisive about what tracks he wanted to play, and frequently performed only a minute of a song before deciding to switch into another one. It seems like Abadawn's crazy frat-boy personality is what draws people to his music, but yelling into a microphone and kicking your shoes off on stage shouldn't be the summation of your performance. Bad set.
Megabusive was up next, and I was very curious to hear what he had to bring to the table. I remember hearing some of Megabusive's songs a long time ago, back when Atmosphere and Aesop Rock were just coming out of the shadows and LA's scene had a ton of stylistic super-groups, but to my knowledge he hasn't dropped anything in years. Fortunately, it seemed like the flow and performing skills that Megabusive honed all those years back were still in tact, and he put on a great set of his signature oddball cadence and weird lo-fi beats. Megabusive really knew how to handle himself on stage, mixing his precise flow and intelligent lyrics with goofy dance maneuvers and personal interjections. Super good set, here's hoping that he has some new material dropping in the not-too-distant future.
Kirby Dominant took the stage next, and brought out his homie Boss One as a hype man/rhyming partner. They were both fresh-dressed in typical Kirby fashion, and implored the white people to all make their way to the front. Once there were a couple more people up close, Kirby explained that his set was gonna be improvised on an empty canvas, where he'd add one little brush stroke and then see where the picture would take him from there. Needless to say, Kirby Dominant and Boss One both killed it with a super impressive set loaded with energy, ill flows, comedy and pimp-ish personalities. Kirby performed a couple of his older songs that established him as a Bay Area legend, as well as a few of his collaborative tracks with Factor (who was also backing him behind the boards). If there was anything wrong with Kirby's set, it's that not nearly enough people in the Elbo Room cared. He kicked some seriously sick dance jams and some awesome stylistic flow tracks while not even half of the crowd was paying attention. Goddamn shame... terrific set.
Cars & Trains offered a change of pace to the evening's music with a short set of improvised acoustic music and electronics. He apologized to the crowd in advance, explaining that the "mutant potatoes of Idaho" had eaten most of his equipment, and proceeded to play a soft set of sung guitar ballads and sound-looping. At one point, Ceschi's brother David Ramos, a surprise guest of the evening, came out and played drums for one of Cars & Trains numbers, which worked well. I'm not a particularly huge fan of Cars & Trains' music, but it was an interesting and pretty well-executed set, especially considering the improvisational nature of it all.
Ceschi was the act that I was anticipating the most, since over the years he's proven that he's one of the more interesting and eclectic indie rap acts to see live. Ceschi's music has an unpredictable range to it, and can move from folk singing to crunk speed rap in the blink of an eye. This time around, Ceschi was accompanied by his group Anonymous Inc, which includes his brother David Ramos on drums/extra rapping and their buddy Max Heath on keyboards/laptop/various instruments. The live band aspect of the show had the various performers leaning more towards the rock and electronic sides of the music spectrum, which was nice, but things really started picking up when Ceschi and his brother moved away from their instruments and started rapping. They kicked tracks like "Hangman" and "Half-Mast" from Ceschi's last album, and broke into an extremely impressive and all-out offensive speed rap song from their mock crunk group Knuck Feast. Other highlights of the set included an interesting electro pop tune crafted by Max Heath that had him singing, and a really excellent live band rendition of Ceschi's song "Black and White and Red All Over." All of the performers did their damn things and left the crowd reeling. Really great stuff.
Awol One & Factor came out next as the evening's headliners, and they put on such a perfect set that I was practically beside myself in joy. I wasn't expecting anything that spectacular since Awol's music, while interesting and original, is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of live hip hop shows. The last time I saw Awol One solo at Element Lounge, it was pretty cool but about what one would expect when listening to his bugged out music. This time around, it was absolutely fucking brilliant from beginning to end, and stood out as the best performance in an evening full of great performances. Awol's deep voice and weird moan-singing style were so on-point through every song that there was kind of a magical vibe of appreciation and happiness in the air. The crowd felt it and Awol One felt it. Too many stand-outs to name, but he performed mostly songs from the three Awol One & Factor albums, leaving a few of his older classics saved for the very end. A risky decision, but one that paid off extremely well. "Celebrate" was played flawlessly with twitchy little dance moves, "Old Babies" was enough to send chills down people's spines, "People on Drugs" and "Perfect Opposites" showed off Awol's most recent material super well. Ceschi was brought up to the stage for rowdy renditions of "Never Gonna Take Us Out" and "Way Back Then," with Awol sadly singing a hilarious acapella song at one point about how the ladies ultimately prefer Ceschi. Awol pulled out a giant inflatable boombox for a couple of his final numbers, which included the classic "Sleepin' All Day" and of course "Rhythm." There were a few Shapeshifters fans from Sydney, Australia who flew out for the show that were straight bugging out over how well Awol One was performing. The set closed with Awol doing a sing-a-long version of "We Are the Champions" that had everyone in the audience raising their hands to the air. It was an absolutely awesome set that raised my appreciation for the man and his music a couple more notches. Terrific show!
Here's a video I took of Awol One performing my favorite track from his new album, "People on Drugs":