Saul Williams confuses the hell out of fans at the Varsity

It is interesting to consider when things started feeling wrong at the Saul Williams concert presented by Afropunk at the Varsity Theater on Sunday night. It may have started early in the night, the first time that MC Tchaka Diallo, who was acting as host for the evening, thanked their sponsor Budweiser. The Converse sponsorship was tolerable -- if you can get money to finance a tour, more power to you Afropunk -- but Williams has never seemed like the kind of man who would endorse American light lager. The feeling that audience expectations may have been out of sync with the touring show Afropunk put together was compounded when, after impressive and impassioned sets by local acts Dearling Physique and No Bird Sing, out trotted Houston, TX, band American Fangs, who delivered high-energy, Vans Warped Tour-tested, MTV2-ready pop-punk with little discernible political content or formal innovation. 

It was loud and aggressive, aggravated by two light boxes aimed directly at the audience making them difficult to watch, let alone listen to. True to the spirit of Afropunk embracing multi-racial bands, American Fangs proved that in this day and age, anyone of any race or creed can make power-chord based pop pablum. The audience who began with an excited buzz had began to wander and lose focus as producer and DJ CX KiDTRONiK set up for Williams' set. But before Williams and his guitar and keyboard player would come on, Diallo and KiDTRONiK would perform as Krak Attack, and at that point the show definitively went off the tracks.

Wearing a vest decorated with a ribcage and flexing his biceps, Diallo rapped about being the best, as rappers are wont to do, but then paired it with lyrics like "Al salaam-aleikum/I don't eat bacon/I am not Jamaican." As if that was not ludicrous enough, the hype act became downright derogatory as Diallo and KiDTRONiK pulled women up onto the stage to perform their single "Big Girl Skinny Girl." For an audience who came to see Williams -- an artist whose book of poetry S/HE was a fragile, fierce and honest exploration of the relationship between him and the mother of his daughter, who refers to the powers he sees in the universe as "goddess" and promotes art as a vessel for independence and liberation -- having some stereotypically objectifying bullshit club grind open up for him was downright insulting.

All this of course problematized how to receive Williams once he did come on to the stage. The Niggy Tardust persona that was the focus of Williams' last record, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, demands an element of confrontation, as Williams' work always has. But instead of fighting through the social expectations of black masculinity to seek individual liberation, by associating with the "Big Girl Skinny Girl" (which morphed, more atrociously, into "Black Girl White Girl") crowd, Williams undercut his own righteous anger and prophetic voice by tying it to the perpetuation of stereotypes.

Saul Williams- "Black Stacey" from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

There were flashes of the poetic brilliance that drew the crowd to the Varsity on Sunday as Williams broke into the spoken word verses of "Sha-Clack-Clack" and "Coded Language," and "Black Stacey" provided the most musically coherent performance of his set. But the backing beats were fractured and the guitars seemed ripped from the school of Lenny Kravitz and the off-key rendition of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" wouldn't have passed muster at Grumpy's on a Friday. The crowd became agitated, calling out song titles and an uncomfortable air of mutual aggression sank into the Varsity, so that by the time Williams played "List of Demands," the venue was already emptying and as he ended with "Raised To Be Lowered," the question, "Was I raised to be lowered?" seemed self-evidently tragic. Williams recently moved to Paris to begin a new phase of his life, and hopefully, like his expatriate predecessors James Baldwin and Miles Davis, he can find some comfort and voice there.

Despite the disappointing end, the night started on a strong note with two up-and-coming (and per Afropunk's selection criteria, multi-ethnic) local acts. Strengthened by their recent cross country tour in support of their Impressions of the Night EP (Sunday was their first show back) Dearling Physique showcased a strong blend of electronics and guitars that was both dark and danceable. Fronted by Dominique Davis, who brings an element of performance art showmanship with costumes, make-up and dance, the swirling mix of Matt Vannelli on guitars, Sean O'Hea on keys and drummer Dave Sellner provided a thick backing with explosive percussive moments for Davis's clear, strong voice to cut through.

Their short set was followed by No Bird Sing, the trio of MC Eric Blair, guitarist Robert Mulrennan and drummer Graham O'Brien, whose avant-hip-hop has been garnering fans for its mix of experimental instrumentation and impassioned, intelligent lyrics. As O'Brien and Mulrennan traded off licks during the breakdowns, Blair waited in the corner like a prizefighter, bouncing his shoulders and grooving along before bursting back in with his rough bass timbre. No Bird Sing's set was also short, about six songs, but they managed to plug their single, "Devil Trombones" and end strong with "Ars Poetica," both on their self-titled debut. On a night that was supposed to be about an artist dedicated to exploring music personally and passionately, it was good to know that we held it down for the hometown.