All the pretty lights of the season -- well, this time they were the fire trucks responding to a minor fire nearby. But we were safe and feeling festive as we lined into the Aggie. The Flobots always pull a good crowd and this time they had the legendary Digable Planets as one of their openers. This was exciting; back in the day, the Digable Planets took hip hop into a new space with a cool jazz sound. Denver act, Air Dubai rounded out the bill, with a healthy contingent of their fans.
Air DubaiDenver band, Air Dubai, is on the way up. They scored Westword's award for best local hip hop band this year and they're getting all kinds of critical attention. While there are plenty of good hip hop groups relying on a DJ for the backing music, Air Dubai's full instrumental line up added serious musical depth. Trumpet player Wesley Watkins often threw in a ska touch, accenting the groove with stabs and the occasional blare. The keys (Michael Ray) would join in to thicken the sound. Guitarist Lawrence Grivich had a wide range of tones, from laid back fills to a raspy octaver driven lead.
Both the bass and drums were phenomenal. They drove the groove, but never settled for a the mundane. It's hard to keep the phrasing interesting without dominating the sound, but both these guys (Taylor Tait and Nick Spreigl) had a perfect touch. Musically, the band drifted around a danceable R&B center, with orbits out into alt rock and funk.
All this talk about the instruments shouldn't distract from the vocals. Julian Thomas and Jon Shockness shared the duties, trading off adeptly. Their flow was full of great counter parts weaving together. Shockness had a fine rapping style, but his soulful R&B crooning was his secret weapon. Thomas' lyrical delivery was smooth and he had some fine moments of syncopated phrasing that kicked up the energy.
There were plenty of good songs, but the hard rocking, fast rapping Lasers was my favorite song. The octave guitar added something between a house style sub bass and a glitchy scratching. The speedy lyrical flow drove the crowd crazy. "Tell the bartender I don't need more chasers, tell the DJ that I need more lasers.
Digable PlanetsDigable Planets have had their ups and downs since their start in 1993. 1994's Blowout Comb is still one of my favorite hip hop albums. The band has broken up a time or two since then, but the core of the band is back together, backed by the incredible trio of the Cosmic Funk Orchestra. They hit a lot of the old material, played some of Cee Knowledge's stuff, and previewed some new songs. Through all this, the sound was fresh and hopping. Jazz hop at its finest.
Special guests Camp Lo started out the set, with some tight trade offs. The worked the crowd with a strong beat and smooth flow. Then Cee Knowledge (Doodlebug), Lady Madarocka, and Reality (percussionist/vocalist for CFO) took the stage. Some of the audience was too young to be familiar with the band, but they quickly caught the groove. Early in the set, they played an uptempo version of It's Good To Be Here from Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space). This showed off how they used the live band to take their older songs into a new space. Cee and Lady Madarocka worked the stage, tossing off their lines casually. Reality stayed more to the side with his bongos, but still stepped into center stage once in a while.
The Cosmic Funk Orchestra were mind-blowingly good. They played like a Lamborghini cruising down the highway: casual, smooth, and well engineered, but clearly capable of tearing off at will. Every one of these cats backed the songs with subtlety, adding just the right level of virtuoso playing. From the slightly dragged hangtime before the drum beat kicked in the funk to the chordal bass work on Escapism to the jazzy, outside guitar riffs ornamenting the edges -- the band showed that Digable Planets could step way beyond sampling.
The apex was the classic Rebirth of the Slick (Cool Like Dat). Wesley Watkins from Air Dubai returned to the stage to add muted horn riffs over the walking bass and loosely flowing drums. Beyond the original lyrics, the three freestyled a bit before letting the band jam them home. This set was a treat.
FlobotsEvery time I see the Flobots, I'm blown away by how professional and tight they are. Their stage presence is well choreographed, they effortlessly engage the audience, and their playing is impeccable. Last night was no exception; if anything, they're even better now.
Once again, each player brought their own unique energy to the party, from the progressive sound of Mackenzie Gault's electric viola to Jesse Walker's tightly wound energy on bass. Guitarist Andy Guerrero shaped the grooves and stepped up to exhort the crowd. Kenny O bounced between light touches on the jazzy sections to full on bombast when it was needed. Settled atop this, Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit had a balanced chemistry as MCs. Jonny radiated honesty and Brer Rabbit streamed a love and compassion that buoyed their progressive lyrical message.
Music is all about cooperation and contrast. The ebb and flow create the magic. The Flobots exhibit another flavor of this. Their tightly blocked stage movements and laser focused arrangements contrast with their comfortably loose vibe, genuine personality, and jam flavored music. This is the sorcery that makes them such an amazing band. They must practice intensely and nail it all down, because there's never a misstep. And yet the flow of their show is so relaxed and each moment feels natural, relaxed, and organic.
The Flobots played several songs from Survival Story including over the top versions of Defend Atlantis and Cracks in the Surface. Cee Knowledge joined them to freestyle over a jazzier, older song, The Moon. Older favorite Handlebars was emotionally intense as usual, when Jonny 5 took it from innocence to annihilation.
The audience was dancing crazy, between Brer Rabbit coming out to dance Flodown with us to a crowd getting up on stage for Infatuation (I was one of them). The Flobots also tossed in a couple of cover surprises: Mama Said Knock You Out during No W and an encore of Europe's Final Countdown. Rap and rock, relaxed and wired, Black and Tan - a balance of contrasts can create something special.
More photos on my Flickr.
Thanks to Cee Knowledge for factual corrections and great flow.