View From the Front Row, 5/19/11
Part 4 of this month's View From the Front Row series covers the Cunninlynguists' "Oneirology" tour stop in San Francisco. I've never been a huge fan of the Cunninlynguists' music or of Slim's as a venue for that matter, but the major draw of the event for me was Homeboy Sandman, who put out one of 2010's most impressive albums and is one of the more original-sounding MCs out there today. I got to the venue extra early and found that a little crowd of younger people was already parked near the front, so I grabbed my drink and made my up there while the DJ spun records. I ended up waiting with people a while because the show started later than one would expect from a venue like Slim's, with things running around an hour off-schedule. I saw one of the venue organizers freaking out and buzzing people on phones one the side of the stage, so one can only imagine the drama that went down in that regard.
The first act of the evening was Tonedeff, a member of the Cunninlynguists' QN5 family who has been featured on a number of their songs and whose rep I was somewhat familiar with. I was not even close to being prepared for Tonedeff's phenomenal live show, however. Where to begin in describing it? He started things off by introducing himself in a comic manner, and immediately engaged the crowd with the "QN5 water game" in which the crowd was supposed to cheer every time he took a swig of water, but had to cease cheering the moment he stopped or he tossed water in their direction. He then had the DJ play one of his favorite songs, which involved a country-style singer talking about dry itchy pussy, and used the track to lead into his song "Pervert." The song started ill enough with Tonedeff's melodical flows and singing, but thing's started getting really crazy when he chose a girl out of the crowd and brought her up on stage for his second verse. Tonedeff wandered around the girl and examined different parts of her body as he speed-rapped through some insanely elaborate verses, going so far as to crawl under her legs and stare up at her face without missing a beat. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand from there on out, engaging them with personal anecdotes and wowing them with his well-crafted flows. One highlight was when Tonedeff explained that he was going to show the crowd his "party trick" by rapping really, really, really fast, and started jerking around like a malfunctioning computer to a glitchy beat before busting out some incredible fast raps as promised. Another highlight was when Tonedeff had the entire crowd hush and squat to their knees in the middle of his final song, only to gradually bounce back upwards as his flows got more intense until the whole room was jumping up and down. This was Tonedeff's first visit to San Francisco, and he stage dived near the end of the track, with the unsuspecting crowd barely catching him despite everyone's hands being lifted to sky. Everything from Tonedeff's rapping and song selection, to the ways he got the crowd involved, to the way he moved on stage just screamed "consummate performing artist." I was stunned. Amazing set!
Homeboy Sandman got up to play next, and my anticipation for his live show was running high. While I'll be the first to vouch for Homeboy Sandman's recordings (they're awesome, check'em out!), I have to say that his set this evening left me feeling a little disappointed. This is not to say that Homeboy Sandman didn't put on a good show, but I guess that I was expecting something along the lines of a Myka 9 performance, where incredible verses are flipped in ways you didn't know were possible. Instead, I got the impression that Homeboy Sandman's super clever ideas in the studio don't always transfer well to a live setting. Verses like "The Carpenter" and "Table Cloth" were substantially less impressive live than on record, as Boysand had to pause for breath a bit and let his voice play on the track for certain lines in the background. He tried to have a thing going with the crowd where he assessed their volume on a ten point scale, but it fell a little flat compared to Tonedeff's brilliant schemes, to the point where Sandman actually offered to continue the water game that Tonedeff devised. Having said this, he did have his moments, and rocked the hell out of "Lightning Bolt, Lightning Rod" and "Yeah, But I Can Rhyme Though." The best moment of his set may have come when he had the crowd clap their hands to a certain rhythm and just kicked a really sick flow over the clapping hands in unison. Pretty good show, but definitely eclipsed by Tonedeff's performance and a bit under the quality of what I expected.
The Cunninlynguists came out to perform next, leaving me a bit puzzled about what happened to the super production duo Blue Sky Black Death. Kno, Deacon the Villain and Natty all did their thing on stage, performing their verses well and getting the large crowd of Cunninlynguist fans hype. Much like the last time I saw them a few years back on the "Strange Journey" tour in Berkeley, Kno was the livest of the bunch on stage, and was even sporting a "Thank You Based God" Tee this evening in honor of the Bay. On the flip side, Kno was a bit of a jerk to some of the people in the crowd, addressing a guy in the front directly about his refusal to get rowdy to their weed songs and hosting an annoying "who's the biggest Cunninlynguist fan" game in which two selected members of the crowd had to guess what the name of the song was the second it started. Their true fans in the crowd were left looking very happy, but I have to say that I have yet to really be converted to the cause and thought that the set dragged on a bit. The best moment of their performance to me was when Tonedeff joined them on stage and they decided to kick the track "Love Ain't" for the first time in years, with all three MCs completely on point with the verses despite the lack of practice. At the end of their set, Blue Sky Black Death came out to assist them with the song "Enemies With Benefits" from their new album. It was fine, but I was a little bored by that point to be honoest. Standard Cunninlynguists set with a couple extra embellishments.
Once Cunninlynguists were done, Blue Sky Black Death stuck around for a belated solo set in what I'd consider a very odd choice of sequencing the acts. I imagine that BSBD were stuck at the end of the line-up because they were late to arrive or due to some other complication, but regardless the choice to have them at the end didn't work very well. Most of the crowd who'd come to see Cunninlynguists dispersed, leaving a significantly smaller group of people to cheer for them. I stuck around for the whole thing, but have to say that I was pretty bored and disappointed by their set. When I saw Blue Sky Black Death a few years back at Bottom of the Hill, their set with Yes Alexander and several live musicians was a massive success. Here, just seeing the two of them plug out beats on a guitar/drum machine/laptop didn't feel any different than hearing songs from their new album streamed over loudspeakers. There was nothing about their set that I feel like I couldn't have heard on my speakers at home. Kind of a dull set to watch.
Overall, I felt that this show was a bit of a let-down. Thing's peaked very early with Tonedeff's performance (which alone may have been worth the price of admission), then gradually got less and less interesting as the show went on. Can't win'em all. A few videos for you:
Tonedeff's party trick:
Cunninlynguists & Tonedeff "Love Ain't" (not the full track - cam ran outta memory, sorry!):