ChiChronicles

notes from a journey through Chicago's cultural landscape...

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

...this is not about me, this is about my city - a living document of Chicago's art's scene, a memoir of concerts I've been to & performances I've seen, a jaded scribe's small sampling of the many offerings of this vibrant cosmopolitan city that I'm lucky enough to call home. I work the city as the city works me, all of us connected in varying degrees, here i pay tribute to our evolving soundtrack, I plug praiseworthy endeavors & try to give a little back... Together with my peers we paint this crossroads with every shade we can find, in your mediums & mine, i run with deep house deviants & wrinkled blues cats, youngun' b-boy crews & quirky circus brats, snobby eclectic DJs & electric painters laboring on projected displays, film makers armed with mini-DVs & picky chefs sculpting tricky masterpieces out of vegan grease... i kick it with slam poets & theater geeks, powerbook producers & fashionista freaks, photoshop fellowships & choreographer hips, while jazz cats blow digital epics through pursed bebop lips... i'm at the nexus of the next wave of Chicago sound - this is where i share the stories of all the beauty I've found...

Friday, June 03, 2005

Saul Williams @ Manifest - Grant Park

Columbia College hosted Manifest today, a 12 hour marathon arts showcase featuring a tremendous array of talent at various venues along a small stretch of Grant Park, @ Michigan Ave & 11th. I had to work the 9 to 5 but heard that Saul Williams was performing at 6 pm for FREE, which is quite the deal since I'm too broke & too busy at the moment to make his set @ Hot House later tonight. So I finished up at the day job, and walked down Michigan Ave to catch what promised to be a truly great way to start the weekend...
Got to the park @ 5:40. There was a nice graffiti showcase leading up to the stage, and a horde of beautiful Columbia hipsters lurking around in various states of casual lounging... The spot wasn't crowded, and I found a nice place to sit on the grass about 50 feet from the direct middle of the stage. I basked in the grass for awhile and people-watched, till DJ Ad Lib (aka Fabian???) started soundchecking his gear. It was hard to sit still when he started toying with those bass frequencies... It didn't look like he was using turntables, but some kind of trigger-oriented sequencer-like gear that spat out loops and had its own effects rack built in. Regardless of his gear, soundcheck was over quickly and I soon spotted Saul at the side of the stage, relaxed and stretching his arms out while in conversation with some stage folks. To be completely honest, although I've been following Saul's career for almost 7 years, this was actually the first time I've been in his presence. The man has an undeniable glow, and carries with him a tangible energy that radiates off his body... He stood in the wings as Terri Hemmert from WXRT got up in front of the crowd to introduce him. She made a few brief remarks about the importance of spoken word in the rock and folk traditions and then introduced Saul. The crowd greeted him with a brief but rather tepid bout of applause...
His first words: "y'all are sitting down..." Then he launches into a slam poem, which I believe was featured in the 1998 documentary SLAMNATION, an epic poem which i last heard performed by Saul alongside Beau Sia, muMs the Schemer, & Jessica Care Moore... It's an awesome piece, but for some reason, framed by the sunlight slanting off the skyscrapers on Michigan Avenue, it feels a little bit like Saul's B-game, an old familiar text that's just a warm-up for him at this point in his career. I should point out that these days Saul is one of the most hyped MC's in America, with a veritable torrent of worshipful press following him, and he's arguably the most legendary hip hop poet to come out of the Slam Poetry scene. My expectations are high, and they are legitimately so - I'm familiar with enough of Saul's recorded catalog, read enough of his poetry, and have heard interviews with the man to be aware of the breadth and scope of his consciousness and the magnitude of the intentions underlying his work. He's a pioneer and a true embodiment of the hip hop aesthetic in its organic, pre-bling state, and the potency of his reputation raises the bar for his performances. The audience demands a lot from such folks, as they are torchbearers for the rest of us...
But I'm getting ahead of myself. After the opening slam poem, Saul intones an undeniable command: "STAND UP", and the crowd gets to its feet and moves closer to the stage as DJ Ad Lib drops the first powerfully thumping beat of the evening. Over a deep rumbling bass and a spacious break, Saul begins chanting the refrain to "African Student Movement" off his latest CD. The poem's all about "African People", (the chorus is "where my niggers at?) and after the song concludes Saul explains its meaning to him. He offers a concise, eloquent rational linking the labors and trials of "African People" to the lives of privilege we live in America. It's a compelling argument, and although you can feel the crowd is with him in spirit, it's still early, the sun hasn't set yet, no alcohol has been consumed, and the collective mood is still stiff. Unfortunately, although the crowd loosens up over the course of the show, it never really lets loose and I think Saul came away feeling a little disappointed in us. There wasn't much bouncing, there wasn't much chanting, and the overwhelming mood was of diffident inspiration. Yeah, he rocked our worlds, but we didn't give him much back... That's probably the fate of any artist trying to work a sober Loop crowd at the end of a long week, beneath an overcast Chicago sky, before the weekend mood has really had time to settle...
But again, I'm ahead of myself. After "African Student Movement," Fabian & Saul go into "Black Stacey," a second heavily racial song about skin consciousness, and given the crowd's mostly white constitution, it felt a little confrontational. The whole set, in fact, was a little detached from the audience. From where I stood, the crowd was full of largely silent listeners, soaking in Saul's infinite lyrical gifts, but absorbing them in the receptive position, disinclined towards any outward show of support other than polite applause and some reserved head bopping. This was no failure of the music, as the beats were intricate, the bass was incredibly loud and a tangible presence, and the lyrics were suitably profound and well-syncopated. Still, something was missing, and it didn't feel like the absent element was missing from Saul's presence...
Perhaps the strangest moment in the show came immediately preceding "Act III Scene II", during a brief stretch between songs when Saul was talking about the validity of the underground, and what it means for an artist to go mainstream. He was talking about the reality of being part of the silent majority of America, and made a humorous little comment about hip hop kids rocking backpacks, when out of the blue some random chunky white guy blew by me on the right side screaming, "FUCK YOU YOU IGNORANT MOTHERFUCKER" at Saul. I thought the guy was some kind of staged act at first (cause the only people i disingenuously call ignorant motherfuckers are my friends, of course) but this dude was SERIOUS. He approached the stage real militant-like, cussing at high volume the whole time, before he was re-directed by the booing crowd towards the side of the stage away from the action. It was a really strange moment, because nothing precipitated the guy's outburst, and it was so out of place in what had been a pretty positive experience up to that point. (To be perfectly honest and betray my northside roots, it felt a little like redneck WhiteSox rage, like when those two random fans charged the field & beat up the 1st base coach for no discernable reason...) Saul was a little put out by the incident, but quickly got things back on track, shrugging off the guy's bad vibes saying "ahh, that wasn't me he was thinking of, it was that OTHER nigger..." (which was damn funny, but maybe you had to be there...)
Anyhow, the show got on track again, but the sound was a little bit muddier, and although there were some incredibly profound moments, it finished up pretty fast. Saul ended the show with a funny line, something along the lines of: "Remember that God is an infant that we just beget, and now he's crying, and his diaper's wet..." I might have that little wrong but you get the jist...
The performance was truly powerful, but it did feel like he was saving some energy for his sold out show later tonight. You can't blame him - the crowd was standoffish and the venue, although a beautiful backdrop to the lakefront and the South Loop, wasn't really conducive to the evolved progressive hip hop consciousness Saul manifests so well. Still...a free Saul Williams show on a Friday afternoon is nothing to turn your nose up at... The future of hip hop is unfolding before him, and his lyricism is setting the standard for MCs everywhere. 'Twas a pleasure and privilege, no matter how short his set or how stiff the crowd...

It seemed like a lot of the folks at the show hadn't heard the songs before, so I highly recommend anyone who hasn't checked out Saul's recorded aesthetic to have a look at his albums. The first is a juicy little nugget produced by Rick Rubin and the second, which I just purchased last week is a crazy hip hop/jungle/atmospheric soundscape journey into electronica and charged militant rap. They're both worth a listen, or ten, if you're interested in the art of the WORD...

Related Links:
www.saulwilliams.com
http://manifest.colum.edu/

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