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Saul Williams at Venue

Saul Williams concert photo

Saul Williams at Venue, Vancouver, Nov 17 2009. Kiri Rostad photo

Saul Williams at Venue, Vancouver, Nov 17 2009

– review by Jennifer Laidlaw/photo by Kiri Rostad

It was an awkward half-full Venue that hosted American Fangs, Earl Greyhound and Saul Williams as Niggy Tardust on Tuesday night. Having to compete for space and fans with a sold-out Cat Empire show directly across the street and a lineup of Chali 2Na, Gift of Gab, Mr. Lif and Lyrics Born further out from the downtown core, Saul Williams got the short end of the stick on this particular Tuesday night in Vancouver.

Opening band American Fangs, from Houston, Texas was loud. Its heavy mix of metal, grunge, rock and soul really didn’t do anything for me in the few songs I saw. I couldn’t really tell if the lead singer could actually sing until he was pulled back on stage later into the night for a raucous performance of The Isley Brothers’ “Shout”. But, having checked out some of their videos after the show, the group’s album sound is more polished and likable. “Le Kick” is the song to check out off American Fangs’ self-titled debut album.

Eclectic was the theme of the evening. Earl Greyhound, a three-piece blues-rock band from Brooklyn, stepped in with a ’70s style and sound. The intertwining male and female vocals from Matt Whyte (also on guitar) and Kamara Thomas (bass) and the large, commanding beat of drummer Big Ricc Sheridan defined their sound.

Psychedelic acid rock with Hendrix-style riffs, sorrowful wails and huge anthem-like instrumental finishes, Earl Greyhound was my surprise favourite of the night. With two albums already under their belts and one supposedly due out in coming months, Earl Greyhound is headed for my playlist.

Just as I thought the main man was stepping onto stage, a dude (I think he called himself Tchaka Diallo) with a skeleton x-ray print on the front of his overalls came bounding out to the Star Wars theme song, followed by CX KiDTRONiK.

Running around onstage doing Steve Irwin impressions (perhaps for the Cat Empire crowd across the street), burping into the mic and chanting “let’s get wasted, let’s get wasted.” I was torn between being amused and appalled. His ten minutes of fame peaked during the aforementioned rowdy, kick-ass performance of “Shout” with American Fang’s Gabriel “Gus” Cavazos – and then damn, that skeleton could sing.

Finally, at almost 11:30, Saul’s alter-ego Niggy Tardust (a nod to one of David Bowie’s earliest personae) took the stage in a multi-coloured feather fro-hawk and trademark face paint to kick-off the set with a free-styling endless list of influences, from Hendrix to Hemingway.

During songs, mostly drawn from poetry from his book The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop, Niggy spun around, dancing to beats produced by a drum machine and gesturing passionately to the crowd like a preacher from the pulpit as he sang about time, history, the future and fixed definitions.

I am that timeless nigga that swings on pendulums like vines
through mines of boobytrapped minds that are enslaved by time

– “Sha-Clack-Clack”

With all its energy and intrigue, the Niggy Tardust get-up can’t escape the slam poet Saul Williams, and that was what the crowd was there for. Responding to snippets of spoken word in between songs, the crowd would fall silent and go still out of respect for the meaning and brilliance of his words.

Williams asked the crowd if they believe they are what they have been told they are, “I’ve been told I’m black, American… male. All these things are supposed to have a fixed definition that makes me different than you.”

What do you teach your little children about me?
Pimp, thug, bling, drug, lord of the undergrounded kings
How can you be so sure I won’t call down the rain?

– “tr(n)igger”

Drawing cries of satisfaction and surprise, Williams announced a new, unfinished song called “Patience”. But, just as the band hit the first few beats, he changed his mind. “No, no, no, try that other one. I’m in the moment and I’m feeling that one. It’s called ‘Give it Up’.” Probably one of the more danceable songs of the night, it gave the crowd reason to let loose wildly on the dance floor.

To the excitement of the gal next to me, Saul Williams performed a raw, almost tribal cover of Bjork’s “Declare Independence”. The song was subject to an international controversy recently when, at a performance in Shanghai, Bjork dedicated it to the Tibetan Freedom Movement, and then again in Japan. There, she dedicated it to Kosovo’s declaration of independence, resulting in the cancellation of her then upcoming show in Serbia.

Overall, the evening was an odd one, but full of raw, passionate performances. I am not sold on Saul Williams’ singing voice, but his words will never die.

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