Sunday, September 21, 2008

Concert Review: Mos Def at the Kennedy Center - 9.21.08

What? Mos Def the rapper? At the Kennedy Center? Yup, he seemed as surprised about it as you are (if you're surprised). OK, maybe he wasn't surprised. After all, he's a jack of all trades (rapper, singer, poet, actor, probably a bunch of other stuff), so why should it be a stretch that he performed on the same stage where Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman performed the night before? It's not. He nailed it. He's as awesome as I thought.

I have to admit, I'm not actually much of a fan of Mos Def, not because I don't like him, but because I don't end up listening to a whole lot of hip-hop. Amongst rappers, he's one of my favorites, though. But I don't have much knowledge of his songs, so, no there's no playlist here. The Kennedy Center's website previewed the the show thusly: "Artist Mos Def explores hip hop, jazz, and soul with his band, drawing from original compositions and material by Miles Davis, Beyoncé, James Brown, and Gil Scott-Heron, among others." Sadly, along with not knowing much Mos, I don't know much by these other artists either, so I'm not sure how much original stuff he played and how much of it was a rendition of an old (or new) classic.

All I can say is, Mos Def really puts on a show. He's talented and smart, hilariously charming, and genuinely sentimental. He had a band called "Amino Alkaline - The Watermelon Syndicate" backing him up. They consisted of piano/keys, guitar, drums, bass, an 8-man brass section, 10-woman string section, and a DJ in a pear tree. They had a projection screen showing old-timey photos, tributes to recently deceased heroes Isaac Hayes and Bernie Mac, as well as this awesome picture:

That shot got the crowd really excited. Including me. I mean, damn, what an awesome picture of an awesome moment in American history. Mos didn't shy away from political statements. He even sang his version of the national anthem, featuring a substitution of "and the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air" into almost every line of the song. It was funny and poignant, but it wasn't the musical highlight.

He and his band switched it up from jazz to hip hop to rock to spoken word to soul effortlessly, and didn't seem uncomfortable with any of them. Two of the covers I did recognize were Madvillain's "All Caps" and Radiohead's "Reckoner", which both did justice to the wonderful originals.

The venue just didn't seem right, though. People seemed to be uncomfortably wondering why everyone else wasn't getting up and dancing. The sound wasn't great, either. They couldn't seem to get very crisp amplification for the vocals, so his raps were muddled and incomprehensible unless you knew them already. Also, the Kennedy Center staff seemed overly eager to get the show over with. Toward the end, a blond woman who was clearly not associated with the band was quite obviously telling the musicians to pick up the pace. The show started at 7:00 on the dot and let out about two hours later, which, admittedly, with no opener, was a decent length for a show. But Mos and the crowd seemed like they wanted more. There's nothing wrong with the Kennedy Center keeping to a different set of procedures from the 930 club. The venue just seemed to make things a little bit stuffier than most Mos Def fans were probably comfortable with. Or maybe it was just me. Who knows? All I do know is that I saw a good freakin show.

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