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518 is no joke: Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav cold lampin’ at Northern Lights.

Photo: Julia Zave

They Got Game

By Kirsten Ferguson

Public Enemy

Northern Lights, Aug. 10

Johnny Juice, a DJ in black tie and suspenders who performed with the group Son of Bazerk in the lead-up to Public Enemy’s headlining set in Clifton Park Tuesday night, wanted to give a history lesson to the crowd. After announcing that his own scratches could be heard on Public Enemy’s first two albums (“You can Google it,” he offered) the DJ asked, “How many people here were alive when those two records came out?”

Actually, the majority of the modest-sized crowd raised their hands; the audience skewed heavily toward the late-30s-to-mid-40s age group who were at a pivotal age to absorb firsthand the two monumental albums that Public Enemy released in 1988 to 1990: It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet.

“How many people know Chuck D just turned 50? How many people know Professor Griff just turned 50?” Juice continued. The two Public Enemy stalwarts may have hit the half-century mark now (and their third original member Flavor Flav turned 50 last year), but the age milestone had no relevance to the roof-raising performance they put on at Northern Lights as part of their tour to celebrate Fear of A Black Planet’s 20th anniversary.

A giant boombox was placed onstage as the show began, and from the start the energy level was crackling, with frontmen Chuck D and Flavor Flav (his flashing glasses lit up like blue Christmas lights) trading off on rapid-fire riffs. The first portion of their set was a song-by-song recreation of Fear’s first six tracks, including the seminal “911 (Is a Joke)” and “Welcome to the Terrordome” followed by five classics from Nation of Millions, including the bombastic one-two punch of “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype.” (At this point, the energy level in the room was so high that most of this reviewer’s notes read “wow,” “awesome,” “holy shit.”)

They were backed by a live band, which maintained a low profile onstage but added the kind of musical muscle needed to bring Public Enemy’s dense, sample-layered production sound to life. Members of the group’s S1W security crew stood onstage in desert fatigues, arms folded with stoic looks on their faces. And DJ Lord, the turntable champion who replaced Terminator X in 1999, got to show he was no second-tier replacement during a lightning-fast scratching demonstration whipped out over Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two.”

The flamboyant silliness of Flav, who wore his trademark clock necklace and spit out “Yo Chuck” too many times to count, has always been an unlikely, but somehow perfect, contrast to the seriousness of Chuck D, whose powerful voice and political consciousness convey a natural moral rectitude. After a blistering, fist-raising finale of “Fight the Power,” Flavor Flav (who thanked the crowd for helping to make him the highest-rated reality star of all time) got to show a little of his own serious side. He bought his three teenage children onstage (including one daughter who recently graduated from high school in Albany), talked to the crowd about the importance of unity among all religions and races, and then led the room in chants of “Fuck racism! Fuck separatism!”

If there’s a downside to some hip-hop shows, it can be the amount of time dedicated to a never-ending cavalcade of opening acts. That was almost the case on this night, with an inordinate number of openers on the bill, but the lineup changes moved fairly quickly and many of the opening acts were topnotch, including the smooth Native Tongue-sounding rhymes of New York City DJ/MC J-Live, and the old school R&B and hip-hop blends of Public Enemy cohorts Son of Bazerk.

 

Return to Zero

Interpol

Northern Lights, Aug. 6

On Friday night, Interpol were a precision juggernaut of jagged riffs, dance beats, and room-shaking disco bass lines that combined to sink the room into the band’s signature morass of glum funk. The band’s modčle alone—dressed as if they were ready for cocktails with the Queen in her dream-within-a-dream about Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception—was just too big for a club tucked in to a suburban strip mall. But they weren’t ever supposed to be playing Northern Lights—Interpol were supposed to be bumming out audiences in arenas.

Last time Interpol rolled into town, they took over the Palace Theatre. Having recently made the jump from indie Matador to major label Capitol Records, they were all sassafras and sheen, wearing their rock-star-in-waiting polish in like they had been born into it. But their major-label debut, Our Love to Admire, betrayed everything that built them. Singer- guitarist Paul Banks’ signature, but earnest, lover’s laments were put aside in favor of semi-sarcastic songs about threesomes and cocaine. They also turned down the echo on their guitars and turned the synths up. Bassist Carlos Dengler (aka Carlos D., the twit with a trendy mini-dog as a fashion accessory), told me in an interview at the time that it had to do with classical music. I didn’t tell him the album sucked; I think he would have cried—or slapped me with his leather glove.

This time around, the band stopped by on the eve of the release of their new, self-titled album—back on Matador—and again things are going against plan. First, Dengler quit the band in May. Added to that, their Capital Region stop originally was scheduled earlier in the year as an off date from a plum gig opening for U2—but Bono’s Jesus/Elvis powers couldn’t fix his bad back, and that was all scrapped. So here Interpol are, playing club dates, trying to stay relevant and prove that they can survive without the man who wrote all their monstrous and catchy bass riffs.

They started out with new track “Success,” and it was a rouser. Then with “Evil,” they reminded the crowd exactly how good they are (really fucking good) at copping from the Pixies and Joy Division at the same time.

Lead singer Paul Banks has a way with the romanticisms: The crowd sang out on “Oh Rosemary,” without questioning whether any of them had ever really dated someone named Rosemary. And “NYC” felt simultaneously heartfelt and detached, the line “I know you’ve supported me for a long time/But somehow I’m not impressed” simultaneously hollow and stinging as ever.

All of that material harkened back to a time when the band had more of a playful sense of self to go along with their morose sound. It was quite telling that only one track from Our Love to Admire made it into the set; “The Heinrich Maneuver,” the legit radio hit from that album, was omitted.

When the audience exploded at the end of every song Banks and company seemed genuinely thankful. And Dengler was barely missed. David Pajo is a spectacular replacement—and not a pompous dick.

—David King

 

The Shape of Things to Come

Bang on a Can Marathon

Mass MoCA, North Adams, Mass., July 31

July 31 marked what for some of us is the high cultural point of a culture-drenched season: the Bang on a Can Marathon, where a gaggle of 30-some professional musicians, students, and composers conclude a three-week residency at Mass MoCA with a six-hour orgy of what some might call “new music.”

One of the many things that makes this event so fabulous is the friendliness of it all. The event features some 20 pieces, ranging from a couple minutes in length to maybe 20 minutes tops; there is no chance of getting caught in the black vortex of some interminable and ugly modern work. Everything is bite-sized and manageable for even the most untrained listener.

And each piece is played by a different ensemble, ranging from duets to ensembles with 10-plus members. (A special mention has to be made of the stage and sound crew, who morphed the stage some 20 times in six hours, and who didn’t appear to break a sweat or miss a trick.) And the whole thing is soooooo casual—the action takes place in the big Hunter Auditorium, and the audience is always free to wander in and out, grab a drink in the courtyard, look at a gallery, or maybe steal a glimpse of Leonard Nimoy, who was being feted out on the deck.

So there’s the vibe, what about the music? It’s always been great, but this year there seemed to be an emphasis on fun, an attribute not often associated with “new music.” Each piece was introduced by either the composer or one of the BOAC-ers intimately familiar with the piece, and all of the introductions were not only personal, but charming and often downright goofy, all of which served to greatly enhance what was to follow.

At the top of the list was Tom Johnson’s “Narayana’s Cows,” a narrated piece that musically solved an ancient math puzzle about how many you’d have after 17 years if you started with just two. Each year was a movement, each cow got a note and each generation got a pitch. The first movement lasted about a second, the seventeenth must have gone on for five minutes. With a deadpan narration (that included the drinking of some milk), and an ensemble that grew whenever a new generation arrived (finishing with two basses, a couple keyboards, three electric guitars, a bass clarinet, and a cello), the frenzied, complex piece just got more hysterical with each passing year.

Other highlights included excerpts from Ted Hearn’s “Katrina Ballads,” an operetta of sorts that featured Hearne sputtering “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” like a misfiring digital sampler over a disjointed chamber accompaniment; three young virtuosos from Uzbekistan, who played traditional Uzbek pieces on traditional instruments that all fit seamlessly among the shiny adventuresome new pieces played by everyone else; David Lang’s “Forced March,” a strident piece featuring a repeated pattern over shifting time signatures, so that the pattern is never situated the same way twice (or as the composer observed “the worst of both worlds: endless variety, but you don’t really notice it”) and Michael Gordon’s “To Shakespeare,” an epic, conductor-less ensemble work with so much counter-rhythm that the musicians were instructed to hop and dance in order to keep the downbeat in place.

Lots of concerts make you feel good, hit your pleasure points, make you sweat. The Bang on a Can Marathon never fails to do all that, along with making me feel more aware, more alive, and more in touch with the world and the possibilities it offers.

—Paul Rapp


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