Photos by Eddie Pearson
Following the release of her new album, I Never Learn, Lykke Li dropped by the Apollo Theater for an intimate performance with 1500 of her closest friends. As one of only two non-festival performances set on her tour, this rare show caught the singer off guard as she remarked that it had been awhile since she had a seated audience.
Kicking off the show as she did the new album, “I Never Learn”’s raw acoustic riff broke the silence as Lykke’s grungy Western-European band took to the stage. Transitioning into “Love out of Lust,” Lykke made sure to keep fans who have yet to hear the new album engaged before she played her new single, “No Rest for the Wicked.”
“Sorry my new album is such a bummer,” Lykke muttered into the microphone after finishing her new single before asking for the heartbroken attendees to raise their hands for her next song, “Never Gonna Love Again.”
Supporting the release of their self-titled EP, the fresh-faced duo Broods brought the cool kids out for a swaying beats and retro looks. In their second appearance in San Francisco in as many months, the New Zealand Duo played to an intimate sold out crowd at The Independent.
The night began with an eyebrow-arching performance by L.A. songstress (and all around badass) Meg Myers. Wearing a loose fitting black blouse and dangerously cut black chonies, Myers swam through anguish and seduction as she churned out tunes, alternating between guitar and bass with cuts off her new EP, Make a Shadow.
With a legitimate backing band to support (including an electric cellist), it was hard to avoid the collective hypnosis of Myers’ set which included the weighty track, “Heart Heart Head,” where Myers dramatically queried “How do I get off on the weekend?” The young crowd followed intently as she sang with poise, bracing for combustion, earning her a rush to the merch table following the set.
Broods – appearing to be barely passed prom – hit the stage shortly after 10PM accompanied by a young drummer with a cool pompadour hair-do, immediately morphing the soundscape into a moody labyrinth with the ambient “Never Gonna Change.”
The second I stepped into the small, intimate space of the Public Theater for the final night of The Roots performance inspired by their album …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, I knew this was no ordinary concert. There was orchestral seating for a small string quartet, a minimal drum set, a jumble of nooses hanging over the stage, and balloon animals in nets ready to fall over the audience . I immediately flashed back to the many experimental theater performances I have attended in my years living in New York. Politicized randomness thrown on top of musical performance can go very wrong – but if anyone can bring it all together, it’s The Roots crew.
Questlove and legendary sampling artist Jeremy Ellis took the stage first, cloaked in darkness. A distorted sample of Nina Simone‘s “The Theme from the Middle of the Night” was mixed live by Jeremy on a Maschine while Questlove blended the overall sound, recreating the introduction the album live. As the mournful music rose, a wiry frame of dancer Storyboard P – dressed in an Ed Hardy jacket- entered and grabbed a giant balloon. He used it as an umbrella as the net of brightly colored balloons opened and fell onto the stage and the first row. Sounds of a thunderstorm accompanied the fall, created live by a didgeridoo player and the beat-boxing of Rahzel, who stood off the side in a Pelle Pelle jacket. As Storyboard danced somewhat frantically, the balloons began to pop. The colorful rainbow of plastic became reminiscent of gunshots. The symbolism of the bedazzled jacket, the Jim Crow era samples, and the violent soundscape combined to set a dark tone for the show.
Black Thought emerged from the shadows in a large hood, walking to the microphone and delivering a monologue that would feel at home at a Nuyorican Poetry Slam. He dove straight in – calling out slavery, the 70′s and the history of hip hop as one grim and poignant cycle of poverty and despair.
Between these monologues, Questlove, Jeremy and the string quartet delivered striking musical soundscapes, which blended into songs from their new album. Black Thought’s verses – although he didn’t spit them live – were given a deeper power in the context of the overall performance. “Understand” was a standout moment breeding the gap between entertaining hip hop. The lyrics proclaimed “People ask for God, ’til the day he comes, see God’s face they turn around and run” while organ chords plunked out the melody. Everyone was feeling the tent-revival vibe - The Root’s were our preachers, saving us from the toxic music we all thought we wanted.
One song that was truly touching was “The Coming.” The simple piano was a sharp dichotomy to the complexity of the previous songs. A pure female voice sang “They don’t remember… was it coming was it going? Were they running from the sun?” out into the dark theater. It was the redemption we were waiting for, the reclaimed innocence after the fall. Personally, I think this vocal would be amazing on an extended remix, drawing out the melody and giving the song more broad appeal.
The audience was head-nodding along to the powerful beats, and just as church-like atmosphere became overwhelming, the band’s lead guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas took the stage. He immediately began shredding to the beat, his fingers moving deftly up and down the guitar neck. This man owned the stage as a rockstar, waking us from the spell cast by Questlove. The upbeat and funky “Tomorrow” began to play, reminding us all that music was, in fact, fun. Audience members began to pick up the balloons and toss them around the theater. The show ended on this positive note, leaving us all exhilarated and emotionally exhausted.
It’s not often I go to the theater – and I wasn’t sure what to expect. But The Roots managed to teach a lesson in history, music theory, and the African-American experience seamlessly. It’s remarkable that after playing the Tonight Show into millions of American homes, the Roots can still be so compelling and relevant. Their success has allowed them freedom – something most artists aspire to. It’s a testament to The Roots’ genius that they use this privilage to showcase the enslavement of music today, letting their audience taste freedom for a precious 2 hours in a dark theater.
Since her debut album back in 2005, M.I.A has made a career out of being the bad girl rockstar. Her creative mix of street fashion and high couture combine with her genre bending rap-pop songs to make her a trendsetter in the best sense of the word. She brought this compelling energy to the brand new Knockdown Center, located deep into Queens. The converted glass factory-turned-venue is in a wholly industrial district, nestled among autobody shops and Chinese importing warehouses. There was no alcohol available at the venue due to a permitting issue, but this did not stop the raving dance party that M.I.A. inspires.