2008 / Live Reviews / Music

Concert Review: Roots, Black Keys School Edgy Crowd At Free Music Fest

Hundreds Flock To Second Annual Concert

MADISON, Wis. — If organizers of Saturday’s SoCo Music Experience were looking to attract freaks and those with outsider sensibilities, the city of Madison certainly has the reputation to fill the bill.

Photo: Def Jam Recordings/IDJMG/Universal Music Group

Photo: Def Jam Recordings/IDJMG/Universal Music Group

The city’s infamous nickname as the “People’s Republic of Madison” is a nod to its lefty reputation as well as its college-town atmosphere boasting a degree of intellectualism and a free spiritedness sure to lure those seeking edgy sights, sounds and thoughts.

The second annual festival, held at the marshy Willow Island in the shadow of the Alliant Energy Center, was headlined by hip-hop renegades the Roots and neo-bluesmen the Black Keys, along with lower-rung national and regional acts that appeal to those looking beyond mainstream tastes. (It also included a second stage devoted to local artists.) Best of all, the festival was again free of charge. What more — besides universal health care and a dictatorship of the proletariat — could the people want?

Especially in the case of the Roots and the Keys, those music super-fans cashing in on the free entry also got a thrilling, Ivy League-level education in music history from their heroes, despite the pesky swarm of prying cameras, obnoxious radio DJs and unflinching commercialism that hounded them on the festival grounds.

Attendees shouldn’t and couldn’t forget there was a price in anonymity and tackiness toleration that need be paid to get into this festival. Organizers should at least get credit for being bold enough to book indie rock and hip-hop performers instead of the usual Southern Comfort guzzlin’ fare. Sure, they could hire hair-metal bands like Poison or some classic-rock has-beens and fill this place with many more middle-age imbibers. But, Southern Comfort is after a whole other target audience. They want cool, young music obsessives.

The idea that underground-rock and rap fans, the kind who frequent under-the-radar music blogs to discover their latest listens, would denigrate themselves to drink a SoCo mixed drink is tenuous logic to begin with. The festival’s backers have succeeded somehow in bringing in a few hundred people both years. The cheese, of course, for this marketing mousetrap is the music. Last September, the company steered the Flaming Lips, among others, to Madison and held similar events in a smattering of other U.S. cities. This year, Southern Comfort dug a little deeper and expanded the star-quality of lineup and included more rap acts in the onstage mix.

The curiosity-seeking crowd got its first seminar of musical schooling when the two-man Black Keys took the stage around dusk, just as a few fireflies could be spotted lingering and the flocks of Canadian geese fled south overhead. The hobbit-like singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and his gangly drummer Patrick Carney were perfectly able to reproduce the crunch and reverb-rich world they’ve gleaned from Chicago blues masters records. The duo’s sound didn’t seem like it could be contained, even in the open air.

The band tore into the buzz-saw opening track from their debut album, “Thickfreakness,” establishing a consistently, glorious tone that featured an oppressive blues-guitar squall and slightly ungainly style of drumming. It was appropriate then that Auerbach concluded this brawl of no-frills blues licks and feedback fury by holding his guitar aloft like it was an altar piece.

Instead of Howlin’ Wolf, Auerbach certainly looked the part of a 19th Century lumberjack with a tussle of greasy hair, a blond-red beard, slightly sunken eyes and wearing a red and black checkerd shirt. However, the axe that he was wielding was a Flying V guitar that chopped powerhouse blues and in a pummeling volume that could level the forest of audience members.

For these guys, the playing the blues isn’t about Stevie Ray Vaughn/Billy Gibbons soloing. The Keys’ understand feel and that a few plucked notes can mean more than dozens if you play them with influencing-honoring loyalty, skill and brutal loudness. This is why, while the band blows the blues into a monster just as Led Zeppelin did, they never succumb to stadium-rock pompousness.

The new record that the pair is touring in support of introduced additional instrumentation into the Keys’ previously limited sonic arsenal, but on Saturday, all hopes for subtly were obliterated and wonderfully so. The serpentine riff of “Same Old Thing” continually looped around the crowd and prevented anyone from losing interest. The straight-forward aggressiveness of “Strange Times” charged at audience members and wouldn’t shake them loose. During the slow blues of “Everywhere I Go,” the pair tried to turn on each other. Auerbach was circling and eyeing Carney like a boxer, each looking to land a knock-out blow with his instrument and declare victory. The only relent came with a sentimental and whimsical cover of Captain Beefheart’s “I’m Glad,” whom Auerbach told the crowd was one of the band’s idols.

When the band closed with “I Got Mine,” they were just insuring everyone left was suitably softened up for the Roots. Their sound swelled with each pass, becoming more raucous and blistering until they felt the audience had had enough. Besides proving themselves the night’s most consistently thrilling act, they’ also firmly established that bassists should be viewed as an embellishment and not a rock’n’roll necessity.

Like the Keys, the Roots sought to educate their fans on some finer musical points during their hour-long set. But unlike the Keys, the Roots used formidable instrumental prowess and brilliant stagecraft to amaze all of those hanging on for the festival’s crescendo.

The Philadelphia-based septet, in contrast to past performances, seemed like a musical outfit that’s clicking like it has never before. In years past, drummer and musical director Questlove could be counted on to glare at his bandmates for a variety of musical offenses. On this night and with several new sidemen now broken in (including a sousaphone player), Queslove’s stone face was broken and he smiled and chuckled as they tossed new musical ideas back at their boss. The band sounded downright joyous.

Part of this might be their new sound, which is fuller and more wide-ranging than in years past. It can now fulfill any of Questlove or MC Black Thought’s desires, channeling the very best of ’70s music. In general, the group is more like Parliament-Funkadelic now, with musicians inserting characteristic sounds — a guitar snickers and bass moans — as the group’s leaders direct the overall flow of the jam. The group’s continuing sonic allusions to “B****es Brew” -style trippiness underlines the comparison, as so does their dexterity and the funky electric piano playing featured in most of the songs. They played a mix of new cuts and old favorites, but weren’t overly concerned about replicating anything from on a record.

The band took the stage led by the sousaphone, which gave the music an unusual kind of bottom end, and paraded around like they were in a New Orleans funeral march. Later, during a breakdown of one tune, Queslove gathered all the musicians around his kit, handed them a stick and initiated a drum circle that kept the crowd entertained as Black Thought prowled the stage.

Although Black Thought is the star of the show, he wasn’t afraid to surrender the spotlight. The group’s only quasi-hit, “You Got Me,” became a multi-part epic, with the musicians delicately shifting between the song, jazzy interludes, a couple of covers and some lengthy showpieces for a couple of the players. The cut began with the familiar Spanish guitar played and continued along its usual path for the first couple of verses.

Eventually, guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas, who sang Erykah Badu’s vocal part, began to stretch the song in new directions. He started by quoting lines from “These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things” and then egged on by Black Thought and his bandmates, launched into a solo in which he drew on all of his guitarist’s bag of tricks. He quoted from all of his heroes, including Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix and P-Funk’s Eddie Hazel, and was a rare display of virtuosity on this day. After all his light-speed stringwork, he got the night’s biggest cheers during the solo’s climax by offering out his Gibson Les Paul and just manically fingering the neck.

The guitar focus didn’t end there nor did “You Got Me.” After his solo, Douglas took the band back to the core melody of “You Got Me” when they rolled into Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and proceeded to rearrange the song a half-dozen times. They played it in all of its arena mayhem, then slowed it to a blues and then re-imagined it as a Lee Perry dub experiment.

The transformations continued throughout the Roots’ performance. They showed a mastery of reggae with the rhythm of new cut “Criminal” and then spun the classic “The Next Movement” by wrapping Black Thought’s raps with dazzling electric piano lines. Along the way, the seven-piece quoted the guards’ song from “The Wizard Of Oz” and the fun-funk of the Commodores’ “Jungle Boogie.” Their rendition of “The Seed (2.0)” was sped up to sound like a chirpy ’80s pop hit before segueing into Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.”

With this performance, the group proved itself to be an ace closer. After such a long day that began nearly eight hours before, their theatrics was enough to awaken and unleash the reserves hiding in many of the audience.

Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA could learn a little about showmanship from the Roots. During the dinnertime performance, his skills as lyricist and rapper were expertly delivered, but his stage presence was sorely lacking. The whole time, he stood straight up, his thumb in his jeans pocket, as he casually strolled around the stage. Apart from a few exhilarating moments here and there, the audience simply stared and GZA couldn’t figure out how to galvanize their energy. He’s not a riveting performer and if he hopes to rally an audience’s enthusiasm with just his flow, it won’t work as long as his phrasing is muffled by huge stage amps.

Perhaps he retains a degree of shyness that keeps him from really electrifying the friendly crowd. (He came to the stage sporting the same cheeky grin that he had on when he struggled to deliver straight-faced lines during his couple of appearances on “Chappelle’s Show” a few years back.) But maybe, GZA had other things preoccupying his mind. That was mugging for the dozens of cameras hovering around him and his crew (he even brought his own camera man with a tiny handheld). He really viewed the whole show as a video shoot rather than a concert. He directed his lackey where to move around the stage to shoot him and only reserved the flicker of onstage charisma for the lens pointed at him.

Those issues notwithstanding, his song selection went a long way toward making up for his weak stage presence. He mixed songs from his own catalog, including creeped-out renditions of “Shadowboxin'” and “Swordsman” from 1995 masterwork “Liquid Swords,” and the Wu-Tang’s, but it was the latter that received the most fervent response. “Clan In Da Front,””4th Chamber” and “Triumph” had people — for the moment — hands waving and jumping to the propulsive beat.

“You know I got to represent Wu-Tang even if I’m here alone,” GZA told the crowd.

A tribute to his fellow Clan member and cousin, the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, brought back big smiles and was even kind of touching. GZA only needed to quote a couple of lines from ODB’s lovably unhinged “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” to get fans laughing and cheering. This was bested by a fast-paced acapella rhyme for ODB, during which he got a little tear-y-eyed. It was GZA’s most extraordinary moment on stage.

Earlier in the day, harmony rockers HaHa Tonka and instrumentalists the Benevento-Russo Duo primed the early birds for the long day ahead. Of most notice, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Benevento-Russo Duo turned the stage into their own rehearsal space with a clutter of amps, pedals, keyboards and assorted drum equipment. There might have been a sparse audience watching, but the pair — a keyboardist and drummer — proceeded to dispense a sampling of the kind convoluted prog-rock jams that they develop in some comfy basement.

Of the local groups, who played at a smaller stage so crews could change over the main stage for the next act, they ran the gamut from bad cover-band behavior to some impressive performances. Country-rockers Dear August opened the festival and was followed by the emo-meets-Dave Matthews stylings of Mike Droho and the Compass Rose.

To non-Madisonians, the Roots Collective might have seemed like a Roots after-hours jam project. Instead of rock stars, onlookers got a bunch of barroom escapees adept at overly obvious ska-reggae numbers. (“I Shot The Sheriff,” yeah! ) The day’s standouts were holdovers from last year’s festival, the Selfish Gene and Shoeless Revolution. Selfish Gene sounded more like Kinks-style pop that the FM radio noisefest they were last year. Shoeless Revolution was the night’s headliner and provided some soul-funk punch with a singing drummer who sounded oddly like Billy Joel. Each band seemed grateful as they got a window to a bigger audience.

And building an audience was what the SoCo Music Experience was all about. While its organizers sought to build one for their products, the musicians made sure the crowd was justified in ignoring what’s popular and seeking out what’s often overlooked. What better standard could be raised? These are the kinds of shows that could rally more to the music-freak cause.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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