GZA at First Avenue, 9/20/12
with Bear Hands, Sweet Valley and Killer Mike
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Without a word to the cheering, three-quarters full audience, dressed simply in baggy jeans and a grey, Pringle of Scotland sweater, Wu-Tang Clan heavyweight GZA (neé Gary Grice) stepped onstage at First Avenue Thursday night and quickly got things going with the title track to his stunning, game-changing 1995 effort Liquid Swords, which he was playing in its entirety. Within roughly 60 seconds, it became obvious that GZA was still at the top of his game and that Liquid Swords is very deservedly on nearly every single "all-time best" hip-hop album list.
The set continued in straight-ahead fashion, the beats and rhymes of songs like "Living in the World Today" and "Gold" still sounding as jaw-droppingly innovative as they did some 17 years ago. GZA's still carrying the mantle of Wu-Tang's shrewd, dark soul, making references to a multitude of subjects and pop culture happenings, but in particular chess and street crime--often comparing the two as opposite sides of the same coin. The album itself, especially in a live setting, is very obviously designed as a chess game itself, unfolding deliberately, wisely. Outsmarting the opponent/listener at every given turn.
It's tough to find a frame of reference for an album like this. Nothing before or after has been like it. The lyrics that can only--improbably--be characterized as intelligent violence; the beats that seem to be both winding tighter and completely unraveling all at once. It was a mind-numbingly brave, astounding accomplishment then and has only grown in stature with the passage of time.
As he started the rolling, wobbly "Cold World" the flash hit: the only thing comparable is other Wu-Tang Clan work, whether solo or as a group. For better or worse, they are their own subculture within hip-hop culture. One need not look further than the plethora of bearded, white guys in black glasses who looked like they got lost on the way to an indie rock show but somehow knew every lyric GZA spat throughout the night for more proof. "4th Chamber" drove this point home like a bullet between the eyes. The lyrical chess game took a backseat onstage momentarily for GZA to pay tribute to his deceased bandmate (and cousin), Ol' Dirty Bastard, with a cover of ODB's "Shimmy Shimmy Ya", the intro to which drew long, loud cheers from the audience who then rapped along to every word. Dirty's charming insanity was one-of-a-kind and there is still a gaping hole where he once stood.
GZA got back to it with "Shadowboxin'" and it was odd that there was the slightest bit of tension in the room, the kind of tension you might feel at show where you aren't aware of what exactly is on the playlist, and you really hope the artist plays "your" song. But, with the exception of the ODB cover, everyone in the room knew what was coming before we even ambled into First Avenue. It's the power of the album, one might suppose. It's ideas still uncomfortable to consider at times, it's scope so large it's like looking into an abyss that actually doesn't look back at you, just continues to swallow the inferiority surrounding it, growing larger by the minute.
"We not only still relevant to the kids, we now relevant to they kids, too," GZA said toward the end of the set, making reference to a 20-year-old girl in the front, to whom he both repeatedly spoke to and invoked to make points during the show about Wu-Tang's staying power. He wrapped it up cleanly, concisely with a monstrous version of "I Gotcha Back" and "B.I.B.L.E", and fittingly, there was no encore -- because "checkmate" means it's the end of the game, there are no words left to be said after. Luckily, on Thursday night we were all on GZA's side -- we all won.
Critic's Bias: Liquid Swords is one of my favorite albums of all-time and I was excited to see it live. Earlier in the week, I had attended another "nostalgia tour" show and it went poorly. It made me worry about this show but I was glad my fears were unfounded.
The Crowd: Overwhelmingly white, which, for some reason, grew more and more amusing as the night went on.
Overheard in the Crowd: "We're going to the car to get high, we'll be right back."
Notebook Dump: His voice sounds so much like ODB's it's unbelievable.
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