Sunday, January 18th 2009
Shows: Idle Warship
As I mentioned while reviewing Q-Tip’s latest album in October, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Idle Warship, a hip-hop supergroup of sorts comprised of Talib Kweli, Graph Nobel, and an incredible R&B singer from my hometown named Res, whom I’ve been a big fan of ever since her first album almost got her the recognition and fame she deserves.
Res’ debut album How I Do, which dropped in 2001, got very little promotion and was confusing to all of the hype manufacturers- it was a little too rock for urban / R&B, and a little too R&B for rock. But Trent Reznor of all people dropped her name, I believe on a list of nominations (or contenders?) for the first annual “Shortlist Prize for Artistic Achievement in Music.” Nine Inch Nails’ frontman recommending an R&B artist piqued my interest, and sure enough, a great album was waiting at the end of my search.
One of my fondest memories from that summer involved sitting on a 9th floor windowsill in the Avenue of the Arts building in Philadelphia with a transvestite named Peaches (long, surreal story), listening to How I Do, wondering out loud why no one else was going crazy about it. But that is some serious digression.
As for Kweli, I was working at Universal when his Beautiful Struggle was competing with Mos Def’s New Danger, and Kanye’s College Dropout to crown the new Jay-Z, who had just dropped the Black Album and “retired.” All four of these acts were Universal acts (along with Fiddy; we were on top of the world), and it was just Next Big Thing Overload for me- I only had room for so much hype. So I ignored Kanye completely, and went with Mos Def. I loved the concept behind The New Danger. Everyone in the industry recognized that hip-hop was overtaking rock at the top of the charts. Hip-hop was the new rock- it was mantra. But no one was articulating what Mos Def was- the why: Because the Nickelbacks of the world had ushered in a wave of rock artists that were anything but dangerous- and hip-hop had stepped in to fill that void.
But then I noticed Res’ name on the back of Talib Kweli’s Beautiful Struggle. She was featured on a great little track called We Got The Beat, and that was my gateway. Life as a music lover can be funny like that- an obscure no-namer can be your bridge to a mainstream artist just as practically as a mainstream act can turn you onto something with promise underground.
If Idle Warship was Kweli and Res (as I had always assumed), then they’ve been putting out music since 2000- a track or two at a time on each and every one of Kweli’s albums. But as they near completion of their debut LP and have started to play shows, a third factor has appeared: Canadian rapper / singer Graph Nobel.
Idle Warship didn’t need Graph Nobel to be great, but with her, they’re awesome. An interesting vocalist in every sense- She’s been working under the radar with everyone from alternative rockers Hawksley Workman and G. Love, to trip-hoppers Esthero. She considers her music something in between hip-hop and punk rock, and cites as influences such mismatched artists as Nas, Bad Brains, Tribe Called Quest, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Cure, Peaches and The Pretenders. But I didn’t know any of this when I went up to The Roxy in Hollywood on Friday.
Like most or all of the people there that night, (besides the feats on Kweli’s albums) I had heard only the songs on Idle Warship’s MySpace page before purchasing my ticket. I wasn’t yet entirely impressed with the scattered previews. But I knew that there was serious potential for greatness at play, and betting on a redeeming live show paid off in the end.
Opening for Idle Warship was Lady Tigra and Break Science. I had no idea that Lady Tigra was half of Miami’s L’Trimm- authors of Cars That Go Boom. I’m still having trouble believing it- I don’t know how that young, smokin’ hot girl that was rapping delicately in French could have: a) Come from Florida of all places, or b) Been at a legal working age in 1988. She’s ten years older than me, and looks five years younger. We like the cars / the cars that go boom / We are Tigra / and Bunny / and we like the boom!
Break Science performed as a three piece, with two multi-instrumentalists (including Eric Krasno of Soulive) on either side of drummer and jazz / funk cult icon Adam Deitch. They started strong, but almost lost me in the middle somewhere- they brought out “dancers” (I really, really hate it when a band has employees whose job description does not extend past “dancer”), and their improvisational jam sessions started to drag on a bit. I was almost considering smoking some pot to try and trick myself into enjoying the music, when they pulled out all the stops and invoked the Godfather himself- James Brown shouted through the speakers, “I’m ready to get up and do my thing! I wanna get into it man…” and the famous Sex Machine intro led to a funky, thumping close that saved the set for me.
The main event started with Talib Kweli rapping alone onstage. When the crowd finally stopped screaming at the mere sight of him, he paused, and then Graph Nobel hit the stage like a fucking hurricane with the rest of the band- a guitarist, bassist, a DJ, and keyboardist. Kweli and Nobel constantly crisscrossed the stage like a human shell game, trading verses and keeping the crowd riled up. It was several minutes before Res upped the ante by running in out of nowhere, leaping up on the front monitor, and wailing out her soul-rich verse.
Idle Warship played some of the few familiar new tracks, such as Black Snake Moan, as well as a song which I assume was the title track to the forthcoming Party Robot. They played some Kweli songs including We Got The Beat, which was of course one of the most exciting moments for me personally, along with Res leading a performance of her song Ice King. All in all, they were everything I had hoped they’d be and more, delivering one of the most electrified performances I’ve witnessed firsthand, in any genre, in quite some time.
The trio continued to engage the audience throughout the entire night, endlessly lunging to the brink of the stage to make hand and eye contact. Graph Nobel and Res are both tiny girls physically- but they compensate and then some with their massive stage presence and thundering voices. Res continued to scale the stage monitors to claim her moments, and with the full band behind them, Idle Warship was the new danger- they were the new rock show.