To many of his fans, he was known as battle rap legend and Rhymesayers recording artist Eyedea. To others, he was Micheal Larsen, the frontman of genre-bending experimental groups like Carbon Carousel and Face Candy. For others still, he was known by his alter-ego Oliver Hart.
But to most of the performers who filed on and off the Mainroom stage at last night's four-hour celebration of his life, he was simply "Mikey."
[jump] "The one thing we all have in common right now is that we were touched by Mikey in one way or another," Slug reflected toward the beginning of the evening, as he warmed to his role as the event's emcee.
As was to be expected, the evening unfurled with a sense of gravity and purpose, and it was hard not to become entranced by the undercurrent that tied every last one of us together. It's not often that a concert (if that's what this could be called) is carried off with such a singular aim, let alone such a serious one, and I'll be the first to admit I had a lump planted securely in my throat within minutes of setting foot in the door.
"Everyone who is performing tonight is either a close personal friend of Mikey's, or someone Mikey looked up to very much," Slug announced--and with that the evening's long list of surprise performers got to work.
The first hour of the show passed quickly, with each act performing one or two songs apiece. There was Carnage, a Minneapolis native who proudly wore a St. Paul T-shirt in Mikey's honor; No Bird Sing, whose somber narratives took on even more heft as bandleader Joe Horton paced furiously around the stage; and one of Larsen's many close friends and collaborators, Kristoff Krane, who brought out an acoustic guitar to sing "two of Mikey's favorites" off of his most recent album, Hunting for Father, and got more than a few lighters up in the air.
"I'm proud of this kid," Slug said while introducing Krane. "Eyedea is the guy who introduced me to Kristoff Krane."
With the mood at its most pensive, Alexei and Channy Moon Casselle of Roma di Luna stepped into the spotlight to play a few duets, including Bob Dylan's "He Was a Friend of Mine." And though they didn't say it outright, it seemed that one of the songs they performed was written specifically about Mikey, with lyrics like "Brother where you been, brother where did you go?"
Before their last song, Alexei cleared his throat and spoke into the microphone, fighting back tears. "The last time I saw Mikey, we were working on a new song together. At one point, he sat down on the couch, picked up a guitar, and started playing this song."
And with that the couple launched into a stunning version of the Flaming Lips' "Do You Realize?" that soaked my cheeks with tears and set the tone for the rest of the night. It was one of the saddest, most beautiful moments I've ever witnessed at a live show.
Slug welcomed DJ Kevin Beacham to the stage to spin a few Eyedea & Abilities tracks as the musicians from Larsen's Carbon Carousel group set up on stage, and then Slug instructed the audience to stand still for the evening's first moment of silence. Carbon Carousel (Jeremy Ylvisaker, Casey O'Brien, and JT Bates) played just one song, "Skinny," with Glo Pesci from Abstract Pack filling in on vocal duties. Glo knelt on the floor for most of the song, back to the crowd, and sang into a floor-length mirror as an interpretive dancer acted out the lyrics from the song.
The vibe started to soften a bit as Slug returned to hype up the next few acts: Abstract Pack would kick off a medley of old-school hip-hop jams that would flow into a breakdancing set by Battle Cats and a bucket-drum solo by Felipe of Los Nativos. The mood was jovial as the performers bounded around the stage and paid their respects to Mikey; many of them first met Larsen when he was still honing his own breakdancing skills as a teenager.
Next up was another in a series of intense moments, as Slug introduced Eyedea's longtime musical partner and best friend Gregory "Max" Keltgen, a.k.a. DJ Abilities. As the room roared for Max, he stepped behind a pair of turntables and hugged his arms around himself tight, as if trying to soak up every last bit of love in the room. Left alone on the stage, Abilities scratched his way through a series of Eyedea & Abilities tracks that ranged their entire career, ending with the emotional "Smile."
Midway through the night the screen was lowered over the stage for a memorial video, which included photos from Larsen's childhood, video footage of him practicing his breakdancing skills (the crowd went especially wild for a scene where he spun around on the floor of a grocery store), and segments from interviews conducted over the past few years.
Thinking back over the past two hours, I couldn't help but wonder: If this much has happened already, what could possibly come next?
It turns out a surprise appearance by Kimya Dawson was what could possibly come next. Introduced by Slug as one of Larsen's favorite musicians, Dawson sat down center stage and played a solo acoustic set, once again throwing the rap kids at the front of the crowd for a loop. Dawson and Larsen didn't know each other very well, but she explained that his mother had invited her and sent her a list of his favorite songs.
After playing familiar songs "Underground" and "Remember That I Love You," she announced that she was going to play a new song. "After watching that video, I think he would like this one," she said, then proceeded with an intimate song about "looking out the windshield as the world goes by." She closed her set with "I Like Giants" and the jarring, poignant "Walk Like Thunder," which featured a surprise walk-on rap by Aesop Rock.
The energy was brought way up again with a set by Eyedea & Abilities tourmates Themselves, whose high-octane, frenetic verses were reminiscent of Larsen's own work. MC Doseone also offered up one of the most poetic metaphors about Larsen of the evening, comparing Mikey to a giant flame "that a candle can't handle."
Ylvisaker and Bates returned to the stage with saxophonist Michael Lewis for a performance of "Sleep Tight," a song they said Larsen liked to cover, and then Ylvisaker and Lewis filed off to make way for Casey O'Brien and Kristoff Krane, who performed with Larsen as the improvisational live hip-hop group Face Candy.
When introducing Face Candy, Slug joked that he was going to start rapping if Kristoff didn't get to the stage, and as the band started to play he hovered at the edge of the stage, unsure if he wanted to stay or leave. Krane launched into a recurring refrain of "Live to love" and started freestyling about his relationship with Larsen, and at the end of his first verse he turned to Slug and asked, "Sean, you know what I mean?"
Slug jumped at the chance to join in, and the two rappers traded slow and serious verses about their mutual friend. It was incredibly intense and it left Slug looking stunned; after the first song he slinked backwards toward the edge of the stage and down the stairs, unsure of what had just unfolded between him and Krane.
For the last part of his set with Face Candy, Krane asked that the stage lights be turned all the way down, and he stepped to the front of the stage in darkness to deliver an even more personal ode to his friend. By the end of the song O'Brien was wiping tears from his cheeks; though some moments in the evening were celebratory, others were simply about taking the time to say goodbye.
The crowd was starting to feel weary (or maybe it was just me and my over-active tear ducts), and it was time to gear up for the grand finale. After another DJ set by Beacham, the stage flooded with many of the performers from throughout the night and a few extra guests as Mikey's mother, Kathy Averill, flanked by Abilities and Slug, came on stage to read a prepared speech about her son.
After sharing some memories of his childhood, Averill said she wanted to read something Mikey had written when he was younger. She called it "Ode to Hip Hop" ("he never liked that I called it that," she laughed), and it was a dizzying and desperate flood of thoughts from a young man who was still grappling with his role as an artist. It was a powerful and very personal glimpse into the inner workings of Larsen's mind.
The rest of the event was an all-out freestyle freakout, part catharsis and part celebration, as MCs from every aspect of Larsen's life circled around one another to spit verses about their fallen friend. It was hard to even keep track of who all was on stage (see a partial list below), and it was an overwhelming and joyous conclusion to a night that seemed to unleash every emotion imaginable.
As all the rappers filed off stage, Slug stayed behind with the mic. "We all gotta remember to push and challenge the people we love to do better," he said, choking on his own tears. "This dude pushed everybody he loved to do everything better--that's something we could all use more of. Push those people and make those people push and challenge you."
Keltgen climbed up on stage one last time and reached for the microphone. "Mike's favorite time was being on stage and sharing with you guys. Thank you so much."
Personal bias: I had a professional history with Larsen and respected him greatly. He will be missed by me and by many.
The crowd: Somber yet celebratory.
Overheard in the crowd: Kimya Dawson! (Okay, that was me.)
Random notebook dump: There were no cameras allowed, which made the night feel even more unique and special somehow.
Set list/order of performers:
No Bird Sing
Roma di Luna
Kevin Beacham DJ set
Carbon Carousel with Glo Pesci
Battle Cats breakdance team
Felipe from Los Nativos
Face Candy with Slug
Kevin Beacham DJ set
Speech and reading by Mikey's mother Kathy
Freestyle jam with Aesop Rock, Doseone of Themselves, Joe Horton, Kristoff Krane, Psalm One, Sector 7G, Glo Pesci, Kevin Beacham, Battle Cats, Carnage, and more.