Brother Ali and Blank Tape Beloved at 7th Street Entry, 5/31/12

Brother Ali and Blank Tape Beloved

with Big Quarters and MaLLy
7th Street Entry, Minneapolis
May 31, 2012

Brother Ali is gearing up to release his new album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, on August 21st, and brought his newly constructed live band, Blank Tape Beloved, with him to the 7th Street Entry to try out new material and prepare for his upcoming tour. The band kept the bass and drums of the original beats, but added a horn section (trumpet, trombone and saxophone), guitar, keys, and the occasional flute and banjo. As Ali has bragged in his raps, if you advertise his name it will sell out, and the intimate Entry show was indeed packed to capacity for a show that was barely promoted.

Unannounced openers MaLLy and Big Quarters held down their respective slots and pumped up the energy in the room considerably, but once the horn section of Ali's band appeared, the room's full potential seemed realized. People were very excited to see Ali move in the direction of live instrumentation. This was one of only a handful of shows, and the first local show, to feature the full band, but this is likely to be his live set-up from now on.

Personally, I'm always initially skeptical of live band hip-hop, as it can sometimes dull the rapper's performance by allowing them to fall back on the band's presence. Brother Ali even mentioned this dynamic in between songs, citing the seven-show series in anticipation of Seven's Travels, when Atmosphere first introduced his live band; he himself noted that there's the worry of the "band doing all the work". Ali has always been a dynamic MC and can own any stage from festivals to hole-in-the-wall clubs with nothing but an a cappella, and his individual power was not lessened by the band, though he did seem slightly lower energy than he typically is on his own.

He seemed to be testing the waters, and he could not have had a more supportive audience. The band brought new life to Ali's classic tracks while engaging ears during the songs no one has heard yet. The new songs are powerful pieces of the American dialectic unfolding before us. During one of a number of monologues between songs, Ali talked about how, despite (or perhaps because of) the troubling issues facing this country currently, a "brand new energy" was rising - a "deeply democratic beginning."

The dual meaning in the title of Ali's new record references mourning the deaths of his father and Eyedea, and dealing with systematic racism and poverty but recognizing the spirit of hope that arises through movements like Occupy and Arab Spring. Ali has always been a powerful lyricist and these themes are hard-hitting in his music, but this show gave him an opportunity to speak on these topics directly. He acts as storyteller and open book in his lyrics as it is, but his frequent speaking sections were often as striking as his music

Blank Tape Beloved was made up primarily of Los Angeles musicians who Ali connected with through touring with Rakim and Ghostface Killah a few years ago. All three legends were backed by the Rhythm Roots All-Stars, and the trumpeter connected with Ali enough to want to gig for the far lower paying independent rap circuit. Ali joked about the phone call proposing forming his backing band, saying he should give up the nice tour buses for a van and half the money, but he wasn't joking when he said the audiences would be the most appreciative he'd ever see.

The crowd last night was moved emotionally and danced through the whole of the set. The live band aspect definitely worked in Ali's favor and brought the energy of funk and early breakbeat to his set. Ant and Jake One's beats translate very well to instrumentation, and the keys and horn stabs sounded especially tight. The finale "Take Me Home" was remarkable, and the place exploded when the horn players began weaving into the crowd during the ending solo. Brother Ali even beatboxed along, which was a rare treat. Overall, it was an impressive night of music and is bound to remain in people's memories for some time.

Critic's Bias: I am consistently blown away by Brother Ali, but was unsure about the live band aspect. He pulled it off incredibly well.

Overheard in the Crowd: "These people actually know what they're doing!"--In reference to the band.

Random Notebook Dump: Brother Ali had a number of quotables between songs, my favorite was in reference to his early life: "I had to be a dick or I was gonna die. So I learned to be an asshole,".

Room With A View
The Preacher
I Ain't No Joke (Eric B & Rakim)
Truth Is
Unknown New Track
Only Life I Know
Uncle Sam Goddamn
Dreaming In Color
A Letter To My Countrymen
Fresh Air
Breakbeat Instrumentals
Take Me Home

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