Release the Dance: Jordan Selbo reviews Thunder & Lightning

Lightning & Thunder CD Release Show March 28, 2008 The Varsity Theater Review by Jordan Selbo

Better Than: Another rap show trying to look tougher and/or more hardcore than the next dude

The reggaetón/dancehall/hip hop/whatever you wanna call it ass-shaking revolution has officially arrived in the Twin Cities. With a core group of talented local artists co-opting, reinventing and reshaping the various mash-ups that are possible when musical roots plant in Caribbean soil, the relatively young scene is nevertheless already solid and diverse, as plainly evidenced by the recently unveiled CD comp "Lightning & Thunder" and its release party Friday. The disc, full of infectious and incessant jams featuring a slew of established vocalists alternately rapping, crooning and chanting in English, Spanish and Spanglish translated even better live, as the "Lightning & Thunder" band owned its grooves and blasted wicked stylee all night. The obvious sense of community felt amongst the artists and most fans of the small but vital scene solidified the night's electricity and hinted at the potential for something even bigger and better to come.

Mercilessly, a handful of opening acts, a few turntable wizards and an affable host allowed the night's energy to simmer at a manageable level for a few hours before the main band got on. Truthmaze, Prince Jabba and Maria Isa all ran through some of their solo stuff at a relaxed but engaging pace. Jabba's dancehall lovers rock contrasted nicely with the uber-talented Isa's amazing energy and verbal dexterity (aka the ability to sound dope just shit-talking over a classic break beat), until the band quickly assembled like Voltron and immediately kick-started things properly with the album opener. What essentially makes the disc special (and the live show even more so) is rather than being just a lazy assemblage of area artists' reggaetón work, its a carefully crafted and live-instrument-based exercise in cohesion and freshness, as Highstylekyle and his Leroy Smokes cohorts produced all the music themselves and then hand-picked a select group of lyricists to run ape shit all over them. The result is not just a sampler that hints at what's out there, but an actual product in itself, perhaps the crowning achievement in this still burgeoning movement already full of highlights.

Forgetting all the talk of movements and communities and blowing the fuck up on a national level (sooner than later), in the end Friday was all about the music, and that music is all about the groove. The supreme, all-knowing, all-powerful GROOVE. A groove that slides seductively in and out of the smoke-filled air, creeping through dusty dub corners and around menacing dark alleys, allowing heads and asses to lose themselves in the thump and trance; the groove that speaks of resistance or escapism or rebellion or celebration, oh yes the groove that talks and yells and whispers sweetly in your ear.

Sped up and hyphy or dragged through molasses, the smooth boom of a liquid bass and crisp drum snap of the Caribbean experiment will always be most intoxicating live, pulsing, throbbing and plucking. The band comprised a tight little unit with delicious flourishes and embellishments provided by the back-up singers and mini-horn section, as the guitarist weaseled endless and righteous licks out of his ax, while an impressive slew of vocal guests popped in and out of the unending and unalterable groove effortlessly, adding even more to the mix, with particular highlights coming from the aforementioned Maria Isa as well as St. Paul Slim and The Kamillion. They ran through the disc's gamut, enhancing each track through live interpretation, and that gamut eventually bled together like running water colors; and although some of the grooves (those raunchy, incessant, flirtatious and just plain spaced out grooves) ran on a little too long, most were so full of crisp and focused energy that the crowd couldn't help but bounce and gyrate mindlessly, with one ear always on the message. This is music to live love and laugh to, and I like all three of those.

Critic's Notebook Personal Bias: Even though rap music, like reggaetón and similar styles represented tonight, can be traced directly back to Caribbean traditions of dub platters and toasting, I've always been more of a lyrics man than a beat junkie. So occasionally the heavy patois of reggaetón gets too hypnotic and I have trouble separating and hearing the words from the music. It's the same as my difficulty deciphering white music (rock?)--I guess I just have a hard time understanding lyrics if they aren't rapped.

Random Detail: At first I welcomed the plush and ample couches at the Varsity, but combined with the soothing pound of a live reggaetón band, sinking into soft cushions managed to make me feel more cozy than crunk, and subsequently I failed to get my groove on even after three cups of coffee. Damn you, comfortable seating at a concert.

By the way: The "Lightning & Thunder" disc and its accompanying release party really do constitute an exciting and genuinely substantive reggaetón movement in the Twin Cities. If you have any interest at all in Caribbean grooves (or just shaking your shit for an hour), I suggest you seek out the compilation and join the bandwagon soon, lest you have to make up stories for your grandkids when they ask you about the first great TC musical renaissance of the 21st century. Prevent having to lie about seeing Isa live before she goes big time forever. -- Jordan Selbo