Photo by Antonio Rodriguez
With The Chalice and K. Raydio
Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Thursday, October 11, 2012
It's certainly been a productive year for Spencer Wirth-Davis, the hip-hop producer better known as Big Cats!. With some full-length rap albums under his belt, including The Tribe and Big Cats' Space and the upcoming You Better Weaponize with Guante, he's taken advantage of the composer's fellowship grant awarded him by the McKnight Foundation to craft some of his best work to date. Last night celebrated the release of his most ambitious project, an instrumental tribute to his late mother using samples sourced from his own original music. The initial sessions involved a number of musicians that laid the sonic foundations, which were then chopped and rearranged as instrumental beats. In concert, those players joined Big Cats! on stage to reproduce the resulting record For My Mother, and the result was pretty astounding.
The night opened with songstress K. Raydio, a Southside R'n'B artist who provided some of the spare vocals heard on the Big Cats! record. She sang with a strong and unique voice that carried well in the space. As Big Cats! played DJ, he was able to showcase a few beats of his own for songs he'd worked on with K. Raydio. Her strength was in her soft-spoken confidence, which shone through tracks about jilted love, struggles with addiction and steamy nightclubs. An acapella track with snaps from the audience was especially memorable, and her final tributes to Amy Winehouse and Lena Horne kept the perspective of the evening.
After a long break in between, hip-hop trio the Chalice stepped to the center microphones and slipped into their single "Mama." Noticing that the largely older crowd of seated Cedar attendants would likely give back less energy than their usual lively shows, they subdued their performance just enough to play to the people. It was just as bouncy, raw and entertaining as any other time I've seen them, but there was a sort of knowing sense of the atmosphere that permeated each track. Initially self-censoring slightly, the ladies slowly took a sly pride in the raunchy side of their lyrics and twerked their way through their set as normal. Even with no one really dancing, there were hands raised and awe from the listeners throughout the set. The group's energy is exciting even while sitting, and by the end I'm sure they won a number of unlikely fans.
Photos by Antonio Rodriguez
Guante came up to introduce Big Cats! and his 11-person band -- consisting of two guitars, bass, drums, organ, Rhodes, piano, flute and three vocals -- and posited him his frequent collaborator as one of the best producers in the country. It's a rare thing to see a show devoted to hip-hop beats, and these tracks especially warranted the live setting. For My Mother is a bold record that fleshes out the producer's signature sense for beats into fully realized soundscapes, and listening to the samples re-translated into live instrumentation added a great deal to the body of the songs. The atmospheric elements of each track were augmented with the lush sound of the instruments, and once they were joined on stage by a three person string section during "Five," the experience felt truly remarkable.
Big Cats! played MPC in the center of the band he concocted, and ran through the record front to back. K.Raydio, Claire de Lune, and Lizzo (who also played flute) returned as back-up vocalists, occasionally playing the center as lead, but mostly providing ambience behind the other instruments. The arrangement was skilled and showcased Big Cats! classical training, but no matter what style of music the songs incorporated, this was emphatically hip-hop. For every somber piano line, there was a neck snapping snare, and the looped and sampled structure gave the songs a chilled vibe that only rap beats can really achieve.
The songs were haunting and beautiful, and it was a powerful tribute to a lost loved one. The audience really connected, applauding loudly at any breaking point. Big Cats! stopped in the middle to thank everyone, and he seemed overwhelmed by gratitude. At the end of the show, he thanked everyone, especially his father, who showed immense support. He asked everyone to support the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, to which 75% of the album and concert's proceeds would be donated, and closed by telling everyone to hug their mothers.
Personal Bias: I've been following Big Cats! work for a number of years, and I'm bound to agree with Guante's assertion that he's among the best in the country.
The Crowd: Split between the older Cedar theater crowd and younger hip-hop heads.
Overheard in the Crowd: "That thing he's doing with the record, that's called 'scratching'"
Random Notebook Dump: I made an attempt to catch the names of the whole band and gave up about four people in.