No Bird Sing album release at The Cedar, 11/14/13
No Bird Sing Definition Sickness Album Release
With Dem Atlas and Alpha Consumer
Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Joe Horton, frontman of local post-rap trio No Bird Sing, embodies the exuberance and joy of hip-hop. So much so, in fact, that he seems to take the polite stares and pocketed hands of any crowd he faces as a personal challenge to bare even more of his soul through his performance. Horton ran through nearly every trick in the MC playbook, and more than a few of his own design, but nothing seemed to turn the crowd into the frenzy he was looking for on Thursday. On paper, that sounds like failure, but the glazed eyes in the Cedar last night weren't distant because of boredom. No, they were transfixed, like eyes of someone utterly riveted by their new favorite film.
Opener Dem Atlas sure had timing on his side for this evening's performance. The extremely young MC, birthname Joshua Evans Turner, just announced his freshly inked contract with Rhymesayers Entertainment this week, which is just about the best pre-show confidence booster anyone could ask for. With a distinctive style that's half Wayne and half JR from Bad Brains, Atlas definitely had his aesthetics on point. It's easy to see what the biggest name in local hip-hop sees in him. The kid just oozes old-school rock-star charisma and looks like ought to be famous for something.
Thankfully, the rapper also has talent and originality to back up his image. While he's difficult to pigeonhole, he's got a strong base in the lyrically-focused Brookyln boom-bap sound of early Mos Def and Smif & Wessun, but with a distinct dash of left-coast weirdness that you might have found in groups like Pharcyde. Wrap that up in a Minneapolis-centric punk sensibility and you've recipe for a very dynamic live show.
Atlas bounded around the stage, kicking his lanky legs like Steven Tyler, and at one point even leaped over the fourth wall to drive a verse home. While his songwriting's still a little underdeveloped, he's working with a lot of great raw material and really seems on the verge of a breakthrough. It's exciting to watch, and so was his tune with a man he credited as a mentor and major inspiration, local slam-poet and hip-hop head Guante. The pair of MCs currently have a project together called Sifu Hotman that's a verbose update to the meat-and-potatoes verse-trading partnerships from hip-hop's golden age.
Someone probably thought they were being daring or clever by booking local power-trio Alpha Consumer as support for an oddball hip-hop show. In theory, it sounds decent, after all, Alpha Consumer are a group made up of incredible strong players with unassailable chops and resumes. Guitarist Jeremy Ylvisker, bassist Michael Lewis and drummer J.T. Bates have all made their names with acts as big as Andrew Bird, but it's tough to make a strong case for Alpha Consumer itself.
Sure, it's always fun to watch three fantastic musicians play around with each other, but with so many superfluous quirks, the appeal wore off in the context of a hip-hop show. To their credit, Alpha Consumer normally do a great job of injecting a bit of silly, ironic commentary into a rock scene that isn't always a lot of fun. But when their set was bookended by such humble, sincere and earnest performances from Dem Atlas and No Bird Sing, it really did seem like Alpha Consumer might be better off in different company.
Since they've begun regularly hosting local rock and R&B shows, it's become easy to forget that the Cedar is a truly unique room in the landscape of TC venues. In-between songs, the cavernous space can become truly quiet, like a concert hall, which isn't a quality normally conducive to a great hip-hop show. But No Bird Sing are exactly the kind of unique, trailblazing group that could find a way to use this to their advantage. Joe Horton can effortlessly shift between rallying shouts at the song's climax to intimate, poetic murmuring during their slower portions. No Bird Sing's co-producers and musicians Robert Mulrennan and Graham O'Brien craft sprawling, cinematic beats that tend to be slow-burners with huge, energetic payouts, and the tension-and-release dynamic really worked in the group's favor.
Focusing their set entirely on material from their brand new album Definition Sickness, No Bird Sing also had some good news to announce. The group was able to sign a deal with Rhode Island-based Strange Famous records, which seems like good company for a group that's finding their sound on the darker, stormier end of the hip-hop spectrum. Lyrically and sonically, Sickness is as serious and contemplative as you'd expect from a band that takes their name from a Keats poem.
But in between songs, Horton brought a sunnier, communal vibe with warm introductions to his many friends featured on the album. Encouraging the crowd to "laugh at/with" indie-rapper Kristoff Krane for his feature on "Target Practice," Horton embraced his friend with an aww-worthy hug. We were told to howl for local hip-hop vet Crescent Moon, whose fearsome and striking stage presence made me wish the rapper was featured on every track. Krane, Moon, and Horton also debut a new song from their FIX Collective project, which had a bit of a swaggier flavor to the cadence and an awesome Neptunes-Meets-DJ-Anatomy beat.
While Mulrennan and O'Brien are clearly responsible for the deeply evocative sounds and thick production of the band's recorded material, it's also clear that they view their live role as one of support. Neither chose to use a microphone, content to let their instruments do the talking, and even though Mulrennan was blowing through some seriously complex guitar work, it's occasionally tough to figure out exactly which sounds he's responsible for onstage, as his playing fits so seamlessly into the dense fabrics triggered by O'Brien. With any other MC, a shoegazey live band might be a problem, but Horton is an inspiring entertainer and a total class act.
Taking numerous breaks to thank the assembled crowd for their continued support, Horton was as charming and earnest in his speeches as he was in his rapping. Blessed with excellent body control, Joe took several fearless leaps into the crowd to rile up the stunned audience, and during the epic finale to songs like their lead single "Freedom Slave" he fell to his knees as if in prayer.
In fact, if there was any one struggle to point to from the night, it was the crowd's seeming unwillingness to participate in the usual fashion for a hip-hop show. Sure, we screamed our hearts out in applause, and I saw more than a few raised hands, but the reaction was far from boisterous. In film studies, they talk about a concept called "suture," where a movie watching audience becomes glued to the screen by the seamless procession of narrative and editing, until the rest of the world slips away and they're consumed entirely by the film.
There's no better metaphor for the effect that No Bird Sing had on their fans last night. Their climactic set-ending rendition of "Apogee," featuring Chastity Brown and Molly Dean in place of Aby Wolf on background vocals, had all of the tragic weight of a great film. When the last chord finally finished sustaining and the spell was broken, it became clear that No Bird Sing has transcended the hip-hop status quo into something entirely their own.
Heaven and Other Drugs
Critic's Bias: Been a follower and a fan of these guys since right around the time they released Theft of the Commons, and I also rave about Horton's work in Mixed Blood Majority.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I thought he said 'Holla' at Crescent Moon. I'd rather do that!"
Random Notebook Dump: Dem Atlas did a perfect knees-slide-and writhe move that would make Marty McFly jealous.
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