View From the Front Row, 2/17/11
The other night, I went and saw the latest Busdriver tour featuring Dark Time Sunshine, Understudies and Max Bundles at the Stork Club in Oakland. I've visited the Stork Club many times in the past, but it's mainly been for seeing rock bands that my friends are part of and this was the first rap show that I've attended there. I was a little worried the turn-out wouldn't be great since the show was announced about a week in advance after the Nevada City date got canceled, but Spencer aka Citizen of the Understudies was on point with the promotions and the crowd was about 10 times larger than when I saw Dark Time Sunshine at Shattuck Downlow (admittedly, it was just me and a friend in attendance at that one, but still!). Included in the crowd were a couple of cool rap folks who came out to support the homies, like Doseone and Karim of Boom Bap Project. Of course, while the Stork is a very nice intimate venue, they're hardly on the high-end of the club spectrum and they somehow managed to overbook the show with a random indie rock act that was also supposed to be performing. So the indie rock band took the stage first, and the hip hop guys performed after.
The indie rock band in question was a group by the name of Grand Lodge, who were all well-dressed and had a lead vocalist that looked kind of like Jason Schwartzman in 'Hotel Chevalier"... Their music was kind of your typical keyboard-y guitar-y soft rock, and didn't seem to draw people's attention. I had secret beef with them over the fact that some of my friends have a rock band called Grand Lake, but kept the hate to myself and watched them from the front row to give them at least one spectator. The keyboardist was super appreciative of my presence, and later rocked out in the front row for the Understudies out of respect.
The first rapper type to play was Max Bundles, who took the stage with two of his buddies whose names had a "freeze" and a "Mr." in them (word of advice to fledgling rappers: choose original monikers that we'll remember!). I hadn't heard of Max Bundles before, but he's an MC from Sacramento who seems like a nice guy and who has backing from Josh Martinez's label Camobear Records, which raises some interest in my book. He rapped with a good degree of confidence and stage presence over his short set of 4 or 5 songs, though his cohorts failed to stand out as much. Max Bundles' short but sweet opening set kind of made up for Grand Lodge's overextended performance.
Bay Area's own Understudies came out next to rock the house, and rock the house they did with a clear contender for best set of the evening, and a definite candidate for funnest set of the night. Citizen, Sean E Depp and Gee all brought the energy, style and good vibes necessary to make a rap set entertaining, engaging and straight-up fun. There were not as many people grooving out in the front as the last time I saw the Understudies play at Blake's opening for Afro Classics, but a couple of their buddies and even a few fans and other musicians got up to get down to their songs. No small feat considering the general self-conscious vibe that seems to permeate underground hip hop shows. The Understudies played a couple of new songs including their recent "Remember Me" track produced by Digital Martyrs, and a couple of live standards like "Move" and "Things Ain't." Great set that I had a blast dancing to.
Dark Time Sunshine were the next group to perform, and the talented producer Zavala kicked things off with some very impressive beat manipulation that demonstrated how well he's mastered his craft. Unfortunately, Dark Time Sunshine still seems to lack a certain flair when it comes to their live show. As amazing as their recorded material is, I think they still have some difficulty translating the excitement of those recordings to a live setting. Onry Ozzborn seemed just as stoic and uninterested as the last time I saw him at Shattuck Downlow, and the set was a little on the boring side overall. Strangely, the tracks that Onry became most animated for were the two songs he performed from his most recent solo album, though even in those songs he didn't match up to stage skills of Busdriver or Understudies. Not all that great a set.
Busdriver was the final performer of the evening, and he put on a train-wreck (bus-wreck?) of a set that was still super impressive and actually one of the more entertaining performances I've seen from Busdriver in a minute. He came out looking very tired, moaned a bit about budgetary restraints, got his many pieces of equipment working helf-decently in the Stork Club's less-than-stellar sound system, and proceeded to do his damn thing and kick some sick styles in true Project Blowed fashion. The beat machines didn't always produce the sounds he wanted and there were points where he stumbled over lines, but he improvised over every hiccup in his set and threw down some truly awesome freestyles and switch-ups. Some of these variations may have been calculated, but for the most part it seemed as though he was truly saving his set through his raw skills as an MC. Either way, it was one of the most unpredictable and fun Busdriver set I've seen in a while. Very cool show overall.