A couple weeks ago, two of last year’s most acclaimed musicians, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark and tUnE-yArDs’ Merril Garbus, marveled in a video for Vice TV about how critics continue to act surprised when a woman does something innovative in pop music. Had Santigold’s Master of My Make-Believe been released in 2011, she no doubt would have been lumped into that same “year of the woman.” Thankfully, such condescending awe seemed to be in our collective past when the art-damaged dancehall diva rolled out a set of sweaty and surreal surprises for a Northern Lights crowd that knew to expect as much.
Sister Nancy’s echo-drenched reggae hit “Bam Bam” played over the PA only moments before the singer’s band and backup dancers took the stage, serving as a proper primer on the tradition from which her anthemic dance music is descended. For good reason, Santigold has been attracting comparisons to M.I.A. since her 2008 debut Santogold but, beneath the glitzy guerrilla hip-hop they share, Santigold is a dancehall toaster worthy of Kingston’s famous warring sound systems and her band proved their competence in dubbed-out beats as well as breakneck bangers.
Dressed in white rubber flat-tops and kitschy oversized gold necklaces, the three-piece evoked some cross between an ancient Egyptian Devo and lottery-winning Flintstones. Meanwhile, the twin dancers played it Small Wonder stoic in baby-doll dresses and expression-concealing sunglasses. Running in place to the martial hey-hey-hey’s of opener “Go!,” the dancers thrashed to choreography that only grew stranger as the set dug deeper. For “L.E.S. Artistes,” the dancers swung oversized hammers in time, shook gold pom-poms, and played marching snares for “God From the Machine.” Amid it all, the singer floated like a disco queen, casually copping her best Donna Summer while her band lost their shit.
Disappearing for one of her many costume changes, Santigold left the stage to her dancers and a horse suit before emerging again, having traded her bedazzled Snow White gown for gothic shoulder pads, black lace parasols and current single “Disparate Youth.” Single, though, is a relative term for Santigold’s catalog, which deals in nothing but shout-along party anthems. For “Creator,” perhaps her most M.I.A.-esque, she filled the stage with bodies from the crowd, all gyrating to the haughty lyrics. Gradually transforming into all gold and black, the band pushed hard to the end of the set, dispensing a fight song for Brooklyn, the Obama-dissing “Shove It” and the chopped-and-screwed “Look at These Hoes.”
“You’ll Find a Way” from her debut was the encore selection, but it was no more the set’s highlight than “Big Mouth” or “Unstoppable,” tracks that lesser artists could stake a deserved 15 minutes on. Santigold’s creativity, though, has just started to wax, making her local stop all the more exciting on the front end of a rise that will no doubt land her on the neo-diva stage halftime at the Super Bowl if they ever invite Madonna back.