It sucks to get things wrong in a preview. You want to do your best to give readers a good idea of what the show will be like. Obviously, a preview shouldn’t give an exact rundown of how a live concert will go, but the preview should at least get the number of openers and what those openers sound like correct. My preview of the Aesop Rock performance last Tuesday at the Barrymore failed on those two counts.
My first mistake was not making note of the first opener, WebsterX, a 22 year old rapper from Milwaukee, WI. His performance was a warm welcome after my snow-laden trudge to the theater. WebsterX, flanked by a synth player and a dapper sample pad operator performed a youthful, bouncy set with a constant cast of guest performers. While this performance definitely got the crowd warmed up, I couldn’t help but feel that WebsterX would be better served by imposing some order on his performances. Hybrid hype-men/photographers bounced across the stage, often getting between the performers and the audience, and each song brought out a new guest to rap or sing. This constant flux of people made it hard to establish a real flow between the songs. With a little more organization, I could see WebsterX really connecting and catching fire.
My second mistake was in mischaracterizing the works of Homeboy Sandman. In the preview, I questioned his fit into the lineup, as the recordings I had encountered were extremely laid back and sunny, which are not terms that apply to Aesop Rock or Rob Sonic. It’s hard to tell in retrospect whether that impression was off-base or whether the circumstances of the show forced Homeboy Sandman to come out swinging. Due to weather-hampered travel, he wound up arriving at the theater almost an hour after WebsterX’s last song, a wait that saw the crowd grow restless and angry, as no announcement was made. The delay forced Homeboy to play a massively truncated set that lasted maybe 15 minutes total, but it lacked in duration, it up with energy. Maybe with a longer set, he would have gone into the mellower tracks that I had encountered, but the 4 or so songs he did perform were straight fire. I’ll have to dig into his music more.
As for the headliners, I am happy to say that I nailed it. If I lose any marks here, it’s because I said that DJ Abilities might do a DJ set before Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic hit the stage, instead he wound up doing small DJ sets during the overall set. I’ll take that as a win.
Aesop and Rob walked out on stage to a cheering crowd and kicked off the set with “Jonathan” and “Krill”, the one-two electro-funk punch that led off last year’s Bestiary. Kicking off the set with Mallon cuts had me thinking that the show would follow their last Madison appearance, with Aesop and Rob sharing the time equally, but this was not the case. Aes immediately went on a tour of his catalogue, unleashing fan favorites “Citronella” (from None Shall Pass), “ZZZ Top” (Skelethon), “Fast Cars” (Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives), and the poetic “No Regrets” (Labor Days) before Rob got to flex his lyricism on a track from his 2014 album, Alice in Thunderdome. It was very clear that with the exception of a couple Mallon tracks and the occasional Rob Sonic addition, this was the Aesop Rock show, and the weather-thinned crowd was ecstatic.
Every classic Aesop Rock track performed, from “Labor” (Labor Days) to “Coffee” (None Shall Pass) to “Zero Dark Thirty” (Skelethon) was met with a roar of approval and a mob of people doing their best to keep up with the rapid-fire lyrics. Notable standouts included a mid-set performance of usual set closer “Night Light/Day Light” (Labor Days) that had everyone shouting along; DJ Abilities’ two DJ sets, the first deconstruted Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says” and the latter mashed together a number of Beastie Boys and Old Dirty Bastard hits; an Aesop Rock a cappella verse broken up by some guy’s arrhythmic clapping; and set enders “Dollywood” and “Kiln” (both Bestiary). The latter song’s crowd chant of “MA-LL-ON” got the crowd in a chanting mood, bridging the short gap between the set and the encore of chant-heavy “Homemade Mummy” (Skelethon) and the frantic dark jazz of “Big Bang” (Float).
All in all, the set was a great representation of Aesop’s career; the only albums not represented were Hail Mary Mallon’s first album, Are You Gonna Eat That?, Bazooka Tooth, and self-releases Appleseed and Music For Earthworms. Combined with the smattering of Rob Sonic tunes, the DJ sets, and the quality of the openers (even with the logistic problems), it was a great show. I am excited to see what hip-hop shows the Barrymore is able to host in the future.