Review: Pizza Luce Block Party 2014

Pizza Luce Block Party Saturday, August 9, 2014

It's telling that more than one artist at the Pizza Luce Block Party shared jokes about stumbling in for a slice in the midst of a late-night bender. Pizza is the fuel that keeps America partying, and Luce is an oasis for wayward revelers in a town that shuts down its best food far too early.

Despite the fact that Luce has grown into one of the larger local restaurant empires, the restaurant's tattooed, rock 'n' roll aesthetic has remained thoroughly intact and amassed the company a diehard following. It's particularly beloved by the music scene for cheap beer, solid tunes, late hours, and vegan options, so it's no surprise that the restaurant's annual Block Party seems to draw on a diverse talent pool, artists who might not have much in common besides their love for the Pizza Athena.

See also: Slideshow: Pizza Luce Block Party 2014: People & Scenes

This year's 10-band roster was nearly 50 percent rap-related, giving a nice sense of continuity and familiarity between sets. Of course, there were a few odd men out. This being a Minnesota festival, we had to hear rootsy sounds courtesy of the legendary Charlie Parr and hot young guns Ginstrings, some indie rock from the freshly reunited LoveLake, a world-funk dance band, and rock provocateur Mark Mallman.

Things didn't seem to really kick off until Carnage the Executioner willed them to. An indomitable spirit onstage, Carnage took a handful of lemons in the form of a constant threat of rain and an audience seemingly unfamiliar with his deep catalog of underground hip-hop and painted that shit gold. It helps that his genius beatboxing is impressive to even the most casual hip-hop fan, but Carnage won the day by refusing to be ignored, growling, stomping, and cajoling his way through a tight but powerful performance.

The rainclouds finally broke midway through Black Market Brass's ruling take on Fela Kuti's "Water Get No Enemy," and the massive 12-piece band, plus PaviElle collaborator and singer Tai-yo made it a turning point, pushing the crowd to dance with their righteous horn vamping. The massive Afrobeat-stylin' funk group seems to grow more fearsome with every show, and when their four-man horn section and three percussionists go full-bore, the sound hits like a runaway elephant. Trumpet player Cameron Kinghorn is a relatively recent but welcome addition to the band. A naturally charismatic frontman, he's comfortable with psyching up the audience and holding down the center stage.

With a handful of gifted soloists in the band, Black Market Brass don't really need a singer to connect with a crowd and get the party started. They brought one along anyway, and Tai-yo's authentic presentation of the Kuti cover, plus an original called "Power" was a welcome addition. Closing with a fiery run through their Secret Stash-released single as the sun started to finally warm the block, Black Market's performance was the perfect way to begin the headlining portion of the night.

Thrust into the spotlight on this year's Welcome to MN tour opening for his mentors in Atmosphere, St. Paul-bred Dem Atlas has made significant strides in the last few months, and could definitely be a national name. As the Rhymesayers signee has grown more comfortable in his own skin, he has relied less on the explosive histrionics he used to go in for in favor of a cooled out, troubled Mr. Sunshine-type vibe that fans of Chance the Rapper will find immediately gratifying.

Like that Chicago whiz kid, Atlas is at his best when he embraces his natural melodicisim. He's got a strong singing voice and a good feel for sing-song hooks that separate him from the pack of other rappers that have that '90s West Coast vibe. His showmanship has really taken off as well. Fighting through a few technical difficulties to get some call-and-response participation from the audience, he hopped down on the barrier to get right in his fans' faces. With a 22-date tour supporting Atmosphere and Prof in his near future, we can fully expect to see the same improvement the next time Dem Atlas returns for a hometown show. [page] Heiruspecs played the very first Pizza Luce Block Party back in the day, and it's no surprise that the St. Paul giants keep getting invited back for more every few years. What is there to say about Heiruspecs that hasn't been said already? They're one of the best live-band hip-hop groups currently operating, with a strong grasp on the do's and do-not's of instrumental beat-making headed by one of the Twin Cities' top-5 GOAT rappers and one of the scene's most unique voices.

Veteran performers, the 'Specs can take just about any crowd and turn it up with a long list of bangers to choose from ("Get Up" and "Pushback" were fan favorites this time) and the MC skills necessary to meaningfully connect with a pack of strangers. Looking ruefully at the restaurant's doors in the distance, rapper Felix joked, "You know how many times my drunk ass has stumbled into that Luce?" and fired shots at the nearby Skyline Music Festival with an order to the crowd, "I want Target Field to be mad that we're louder!"

In front of a pretty large crowd already, Mark Mallman seemed a little fatigued after starting on a riff on "We Built this City on Rock 'n' Roll." The man can write some damn good songs and works like a dog to entertain his fans, but we kept waiting for the bombastic wildness he brings to his legendary "Marathon" show. Some of the arrangements, especially those featuring his newly added horn section, sounded quickly thrown together. Guest appearances by rappers Botzy and Sean Anonymous helped, but overall, we'll look for a bounce-back next time.

Leave it to the world-beating members of GRRRL PRTY to save the night. Introduced by Barb Abney of the Current, who noted that this was one of their last shows for a while, the trio of rappers backed by DJ Shannon Blowtorch scorched the stage and turned the now fully packed crowd all the way up. Before the set, Lizzo took time to sing Abney a happy birthday and thank the DJ for her support during Lizzo's meteoric rise, a thoughtful and sweet moment followed by, you guessed it, shots! While I've definitely seen hungrier, more dynamic sets from the group (their Icehouse residency comes to mind) there's a certain joy to seeing a slick, professional GRRRL PRTY set honed by Lizzo and Sophia Eris's nonstop touring over the past year.

Manchita, Eris, and Lizzo have worked out some pretty nifty synchronized dance routines that give an sense of polish to their rough-and-rowdy blend of trap, trill, and club banging hip-hop styles. "Ashes" went over huge, with the throbbing, EDM-esque beat working the crowd into a frenzy while the three MC's vogued confidently. Lizzo made a hilarious flip of the male-dominated rap paradigm by dragging an attractive male fan onstage and utterly objectifying him until he scurried off in what I can only assume was a mix of arousal and terror. Closing with a victory-lap karaoke routine on the recent "Flawless" remix by Queen Bey, GRRRL PRTY Party sealed the deal on another successful year of music from a restaurant institution.

Critic's Bias: Pretty familiar with most of these acts from earlier performances this year. Also, total Luce junkie. The know my slice order at the Franklin location at this point.

Random Notebook Dump: Someone went a little ham with the promotional beach balls this year; I saw more than a few spilled beers and pissed off audience members getting pelted by the inflatable projectiles.

53 things you might not know about Prince
73 things you might not know about Bob Dylan
Brother Ali: My fans are kicking the sh*t out of me over Trayvon Martin

Here's why we didn't sign the Foo Fighters photo waiver
Top 20 best Minnesota musicians: The complete list