View From the Front Row, 1/14/12
The other night, I had the chance to see Melissa Czarnik and Eric Mire perform in the intimate setting of the Red Poppy Arthouse in San Francisco. Melissa Czarnik (or "MC" as she abbreviates it on her calling card) is a rapper and spoken word artist from Milwaukee who has an original voice and a knack for penning some melodic flows and introspective lyrics. Her partner Eric Mire provides the musical backdrop for her endeavors with some nice live keyboard instrumentation, which compliments Melissa's style well. I hadn't heard of these two until I received one of their albums unexpectedly in the mail with a nice handwritten Jean-Michel Basquiat postcard, and the music and professionalism of said "Raspberry Jesus" CD impressed me in a way that few unsolicited projects have. Naturally, I was curious to see how their music translated to a live setting.
The Red Poppy Arthouse was a far stretch from your average hip hop spot, and the layout of the event was also very unusual for a rap show. The venue was clearly geared towards providing a space for intimate spoken word performances, and Melissa Czarnik's show was treated as such, with a tightly knit schedule complete with formal introductions and intermissions. Stranger still was that this was a seated show, with several rows of chairs and no space to groove out up front... disorienting to a front row dancer like myself. The spot was tiny and still felt a little empty, with maybe 30% of the seats claimed if we're being generous, but it all made for a very special and intimate show that I'll be reminiscing on for some time to come.
The first half of Melissa Czarnik's set featured her on the mic while Eric Mire played keyboards and drum loops in the background. I arrived at the Red Poppy Arthouse a little after 8 when the show was scheduled to start, only to find that they were running fully on schedule (another rarity at rap shows) and were already halfway into one of their standout songs "Hand Me the Mic." Both Melissa Czarnik and Eric Mire demonstrated some fine musicianship in the way they interpreted and rearranged their songs live, with Eric providing lots of new improvisational elements to the songs with his keyboard and Melissa skillfully adapting her vocals to the twists. They performed several strong numbers from their "Raspberry Jesus" album including "Wake Up" and "Like That," as well as the song "Remember" which had Eric Mire helping out on the vocals with some rapping. They also played a few very promising numbers from their upcoming album "Non Merci," which is destined to be the most Parisian hip hop album ever released by a rapper from the US, let alone Milwaukee.
After an intermission in which folks hit the Red Poppy's tiny but surprisingly well-stocked bar, Melissa and Eric got back on stage and performed another set of songs. This time, Eric Mire traded his keyboard in for a tradition stand-up piano provided by the venue, which altered the recorded versions of Melissa's songs even further. The two of them did justice to my favorite songs from "Raspberry Jesus," namely "Say Goodbye" and "Love Train," and it was interesting to hear how different some of the numbers sounded with an old school piano in the mix. The only song that sounded a little awkward to me in this piano setting was "Stay High," which Ms. Czarnik rapped exceptionally well over but which felt a little off in the absence of Patrice Downey's lively hook. The audience was dead silent while Melissa was doing her verses, but gave a good reception at the end of each song and even cheered for an encore, which they ended up getting in the form of "Been This Way." Melissa and Eric also interspersed their set with some humorous trivia that the older heads in attendance had on lock, though the occasional gap of crowd silence made it as risky as it was entertaining.
Overall, the quiet and intimate nature of this show made it stand out as something special. It felt like a private and personal performance for a few select people, which seemed appropriate given the personal nature of Melissa Czarnik's music. I left the show with a greater appreciation for Melissa and Eric's recordings after seeing them work their musicianship on stage, and am curious to see where their music progresses from here. They're good people, so I'll be rooting for'em regardless. Some from the show below:
Melissa Czarnik and Eric Mire performing a new song from "Non Merci":
Melissa Czarnik and Eric Mire performing "Say Goodbye" on stand-up piano: