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The Big Voice

Audra McDonald sang for a crowd of devoted musical theater fans at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady Nov. 12. It may have been raining and just shy of miserable outside, but the multiple Tony Award-winner kept the audience happy with an array of show tunes.

Gifted

By John Brodeur

Blackalicious, Earl Greyhound

Skidmore College, Nov. 11

What happens when you set a college student-activities board loose with a date to fill and a budget with which to fill it? In the case of last Saturday’s show at Skidmore’s Sports and Recreation Center, you get two wholly different but satisfying acts with little connection to one another beside some of the performers’ skin tone, and the name at the bottom of their fee checks.

Not that this mattered to the kids. Actually, both Blackalicious and openers Earl Greyhound (ha ha) did appeal to a certain segment: Between sets, a curly-haired kid ran by me in the parking lot, gasping for breath, asking of—well, I’m not sure who exactly—“Do you know how long it takes to roll a joint?” (Perhaps this was the same kid whose dimebag I later spotted discarded on the rec center’s stairs.)

And it appeared that Blackalicious knew their audience. On the classic Nia track “Deception,” MC Gift of Gab led the audience through the song’s “la dee da” chorus, then altered the line “Be true to yourself and stay humble” to become “. . . smoke one bowl.” On that same song, he raps “If you’re blessed with the talent, utilize it to the fullest”—and that he did.

The duo’s (Gift of Gab, along with DJ Chief Xcel) 2005 release The Craft made a strong case for the viability of modern hip-hop, the very antidote for a case of G-Unit. It reasserted the duo’s rhythmic and lyrical creativity, while eschewing the sample-heavy track structure of old. Some took this as overstatement—much of the album does get bogged-down in statement of purpose, an odd move for an act well into its second decade—but more often than not, the tracks spoke for themselves.

Live, Craft tracks were deftly filed between tracks from the duo’s catalog, and many of their “conscious” tracks were sidelined in favor of party favorites. Smart, as their presentation is as simple as live hip-hop gets: one MC and one DJ. No dancers. No fancy lightshow or backdrop. No live instrumentation. No guest singers. This leaves the onus on the tracks, which Xcel chooses with care—what other hip-hip act is sampling Harry Nilsson?—and Gab’s vocal skills, which are, in a word, outstanding. A master of the run-on sentence, he has a thesaurus-like lyrical bank and seemingly bottomless lung capacity.

That’s not to mention his crowd-control abilities. He managed to change up one of live music’s most rote routines—the “which side can be louder?” act—getting half the audience at a time to shout “Party’s over here, fuck you over there!” And a power outage during “Rhythm Sticks” didn’t faze the duo—while some acts would have freaked and left the stage, Gab and Xcel stayed put as the crowd chanted “bullshit”; the moment the lights kicked back on, Gab invested himself in an impressive, mile-a-minute freestyle session while Xcel found his cue. A master of the craft at work.

New York-based trio Earl Greyhound started off the evening with a 40-minute set of songs from their Some Records debut Soft Targets. Unfortunately, it sounded like the sound engineer was testing the mix right on through the set—by the end, you could hear the guitar, bass, and kick drum! But no matter—guitarist Matt Whyte pens some deliciously monstrous retro-rock nuggets, low-end be damned. The group at times resembled the Capital Region’s own Super 400, which is a high (or, high) compliment; and their cool, classic sound was as big as bassist Kamara Thomas’ afro. They were at their best on the eight-minute “Monkey,” on which drummer Ricc Sheridan threatened to pummel his Ludwigs into the front two rows.


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