A Night of Sight & Sound with Saul Williams

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Looking for an event to engage all your senses on a Saturday night? This evening at the Kinetic Playground in Chicago Lethal Poetry will host a Night of Sight and Sound, with special guest Saul Williams, and serve up a stimulating blend of live music, b-boy battles, poetry and art exhibition.
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Saul Williams Experiment: The Dual Review

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Saul Williams

Saul Williams

I’ve always wanted to do this. 

So I did it.

But before I share with you Part One of a recent Live Fix Experiment, I want to thank my friend and fellow music writer Moira McCormick for giving me the chance to test out some ideas and explore another aspect of live music.

The Dual Concert Review

Last Tuesday, I reviewed Saul Williams and the Afro Punk tour stop when it came to the Double Door. You can check out my review and more of Colleen’s photos here.

But I’d like to give Moira’s review center stage because it was her review that made this Dual Review Experiment a success.

For some time know, I’ve been wanting to team up with a fellow music writer and have us attend the same concert and both write reviews just to see what sort of things show up.  I wanted to see if there would be similarities or differences in how the show moved or didn’t move us, how we each interpreted the crowd response, and what sort of expectations we both brought to the show and how those expectations influenced our reviews.  (The bold areas are my additions that I’ll explain later.)

Moira’s review

 
Saul Williams live at the Double Door, Chicago, 27 October 2009
 
When Saul Williams played Lollapalooza 2008, the multi-hyphenate artist (poet-actor-emcee-activist-writer-avant-rocker) scorched an already sultry Sunday afternoon. His skin-flaying barrage of electro, industrial, rap, and riffage was glandular in its intensity; the fact that it scared off a pair of yammering fratboys to my left made Williams’ startling set that much more delicious.
 
Thus, my question: was the impression that Williams’ Chicago appearance (Tuesday night at the Double Door, as headliner of the Afro-Punk Tour) was just a skosh less gobsmacking due (at least to some degree) to the following: the amiably dank Wicker Park venue’s near-capacity crowd was rather emphatically preppy?
 
And my answer: Oh, probably.  It’s that how-radical-can-this-be-if-these-people-like-it bias, embodied since time immemorial by music snobs everywhere (I will admit, grudgingly, to swelling their ranks now and then myself.)
 
If Saul Williams is swelling his own ranks with this brand of mass audience, it’s due in no small part to the brands of two corporate footwear titans: Nike, who made indelible use of Williams’ ferocious punk salvo “List of Demands (Reparations)” in a 2008 ad campaign; and now Converse, sponsor of the multi-city Afro-Punk Tour. It’s large-scale exposure, and it works.
 
Headliner Williams (who was immediately preceded at the Double Door by the workmanlike clatter of Houston-based American Fangs) took the stage calling a litany of names who have influenced him (and his alter ego, Niggy Tardust.) Baldwin, Coltrane, Hendrix, Shakespeare, Marley, and many more were invoked, while the four-piece band Krak Attak – led by drum machinist and Williams’ longtime compatriot CX Kidtronik – loosed a fire-hose spray of large rusty nails.
 
“Too many people to dance?” queried Williams, crowned with turquoise feathers and sizing up the sardined throng in the mosh pit. “No? Prove it!” He lurched into the fury of “Sha-Clack-Clack,” his declaration of incandescence from the 1998 movie Slam, going on to deliver a seething hit parade of signature tunes, including the sinuous “WTF,” jazz-inflected “Black Stacey,” jagged “Surrender (A Second to Think),” and deeply rocking “Tr(n)igger.” All eminently worthy, if (as mentioned) maybe not quite as utterly staggering as Williams’ Lolla set. 
 
A handful of new material did intrigue, in particular the piece Williams introduced as “a demo,” all ominous synths oozing between anxious staccato beats. By his performing the work-in-progress, Williams announced to the crowd, “You’re helping me write it.”  Also striking was a song so freshly minted Williams described it as “barely written;” it had a loping, psychotic-Asian-cowboy feel – the soundtrack to an Eastern Western, maybe.
 
The show could very easily have done without Kidtronik’s playing-to-the-groundlings antics towards the end, soliciting “the ladies” to dance onstage, but it was followed with a respectable version of “List of Demands” – a crowd-pleasing closer that got the desired response.

 

I learn a lot from reading the work of fellow music writers and this was no different.  The areas I bolded were spots where I really zeroed in because Moira’s descriptions were either strikingly different than mine or revealed a side to Williams music that I hadn’t seen before.  We had talked about her Lollapalooza 2008 review before the show and I didn’t expect her to use that as a lead.  Nonetheless I loved how she used “delicious” as a way to describe her excitement and anticipation Williams show.

The other part I loved about doing this Experiment was how it unlocked ways to describe live music.

Sometime I get in ruts and when I read reviews like these I walk away inspired and pumped because I feel like I have just added new weapons into my music writing arsenal.

Reading her “loosed a fire-hose spray…” and  “…soundtrack to an Eastern Western…” descriptions were truly  “new weapons” moments.  And it’s moments like those that make writing, and reading, about live music so fun and a great creative adventure.  Because let’s be honest, writing about music doesn’t always pay the big bucks so there’s got to a be reason why we do it for so long and for so little pay most of the time.  One reason, I know, is because when we’re having fun doing it, it’s a highly pleasurable creative outlet and a powerful form of self-expression.

And this makes perfect sense because many music writers (me included) are better at writing about music than playing, so it’s only natural that we’d turn to the written word to express ourselves. 

The other part of this experiment that I loved was the chance to connect and collaborate with a fellow music writer.  It’s not to often that I get to meet and work with my colleagues in this way, so this was a great chance to do something fresh with a old craft and build our  Live Fix community.

Part Two:  a music journalist  tells her story

I hope you enjoyed Part One and stay tuned for Part Two as I interview Moira about some of her favorite concert experiences as a fan and a music journalist.   We had a brief time to chat before the Saul Williams and I’m excited to share the rest of her story with you.

Are you a music writer?  If you want to share your story or do a Dual Review send me an email at chris@christophercatania.com

 Photo credit Colleen Catania

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Saul Williams Spares A Penny: My Eternal Afterthought

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That video above is evidence that something eternal happened last night at the Saul Williams show.

It was a case of my brain processing one thing while my heart processed another.

During what I believe was the song “A Penny for a Thought”  I misunderstood the lyrics in a way that surprisingly served my soul and comforted my mind and heart.

It was an unusual show in that the energy of Williams wasn’t quite at his normal level, which is still pretty intense compared to most artists.

That said, I had a hard time finding an emotional entry point into the show. 

But then, towards the end of the show, he played what I believe was “A Penny for a Thought,” but I’m still not sure. 

In any case, there was a verse that caught my ear as Williams kept repeating it:  “Even death is a part of life…Even death is a part of life..”

And each time he repeated that verse the doorway to the emotional entry point I was looking for opened wider and wider.

So I stepped in.

And then it hit me. 

For the last three days, my wife and I have been mourning the death of her Uncle John who died last Thursday after his battle with brain cancer.

One of the reasons it’s been hard for me is because I got to know Uncle John’s love for live music earlier this year when I interviewed him for Live Fix about meeting Kid Rock backstage.

And naturally, that conversation and John’s death have been on my mind and heart in some pretty heavy and profound ways.

So during the Saul Williams concert I believe something eternal happened because this morning as I was writing this post I looked up the lyrics to “A Penny For A Thought” and realized that the actual lyrics were “Seven mountains higher that the valley of death/Seven dimensions deeper than the dimensions of breath..”

Now, I’m pretty sure I heard Williams sing “…even death is a part of life..”

But what I think was eternal and even spiritual about last night was that, for whatever reason, I heard what I needed to hear so that I would find some level of comfort and clarity as I grieve and process John’s death.

Whether I misheard the lyrics or not, what happened last night my friends was an eternal aspect of live music. 

And I think it was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve had at a concert in recent memory.  I didn’t plan on having it.  I just happened. 

Writing this post makes the whole experience even feel predestined or preordained in a way. 

It was as if God knew I needed to hear Saul Williams croon those words right into my heart.

So, as I mention in the video,  I encourage you to take time to listen for moments like I had last night when you go to your next show.

Have you ever had an eternal or “misheard” moment during a concert?

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Concert Review: Saul Williams at Double Door in Chicago

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Saul Williams @ Double Door

The Afro-Punk tour arrived in Chicago with poet/actor/emcee Saul Williams leading the hip hop, punk and funk tribe to the Double Door. Openers American Fangs showed tons of passion and promise, but sadly the surly upstarts failed to strike any chords of freshness or uniqueness. But I feel for them, because having Saul Williams—-the personification of pure originality—-as your tour mate can make most bands seem average.

When Williams marched on stage it was nothing short of dramatic. His “Niggy Tardust” persona—-the same character title of his 2007 concept album—-was in full bloom. Face covered in streaks of war paint, with an afro-mane sprouting aqua-colored feathers, it was a all a stunning visual reminder of his constant commitment to overcome the common struggle we all face: to funk the ordinary and embrace self-expression. Like his music, Williams’ stage presence combines the essence of hip hop, punk rock and funk all into one brilliant mix.

Intensity is the other crucial key to a Saul Williams show. His one-of-a-kind rawness and abandon for personal expression is awesome to watch and absorb. At previous shows, I’d felt invigorating psychological and physiological surges.

But as this set unfolded something was missing.

As Williams unpacked each song, backed by a band led by beatmaker/producer CX Kidtronix, a lower level of intensity emerged. This felt uncharacteristic and awkward—even though a calm Saul Williams concert is still off the charts compared to other artists. Like an ace pitcher who doesn’t have the heat but still hurls a great game, Williams struggled hard to move our hearts and hips. After the first song Williams challenged the crowd, inciting us, “Are you not dancing because there’s no room?” “No?” the crowd shouted back, puzzled. Williams responded instantly staring us down, “Then prove it.”

And we did. As soon as CX Kidtronix and company dropped the next beat the crowd surged. Heads bobbed, hands flung in the air, and hips swung in a current of riotous rhythms and gnashes of guitar blasting from the speakers.

It quickly became a family affair when Williams’ daughter, Saturn, leaped on stage during the self-liberating anthem “Grippo.” The two joyously danced on stage. Williams ended the song humorously, saying with a grin, “She writes all the songs.”

Williams was foreshadowing, however, because a few songs later he unveiled a new “still a demo” song from his upcoming album. He gripped the mic, crooning “Patience,” seething with soul and funky organ hums. The track sizzled with fear, heartache, and anxiety. Williams admitted that the song was not quite complete and thanked us for helping him get one step closer to finishing it. For just a demo, it was impressive.

I can’t quite explain the show’s diminished vibe, but when Williams unleashed his trademark tracks “Black Stacey” and “Convict Colony” I was finally satiated with afro-punk. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt this time, but next show I expect to leave wiped out and floating back to the seventh heaven.

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Live Preview: Saul Williams at Double Door

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The Afro-Punk tour has arrived in Chicago.

And poet/actor/emcee Saul Williams is leading the funky freak charge to the Double Door tonight.

If all things go as planned, I should have a special treat for you once the show is over.

But you’ll have to be patient to see what that treat is.

The concert of memory inside my head

Since our minds store everything we experience in one way or another, I’ll be thinking about the last time I saw Williams in an intimate club like the Double Door.  I deemed it a  BAAD show.  Because my pre-show interview with Williams changed the concert experience for me.

But I don’t think this one will be because I won’t  be interviewing  him beforehand.

This time around I’m expecting Williams to create some new concert memories and bust out some new songs from his “album in the works.”

And I’m sure in one way or another he’ll show off his multi-colored sonic arsenal of funk, punk and hip hop; and leave us grasping  and gasping for more.

Follow along on with me on another Live Fix Experiment via @chriscatania

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Open Books Blogathon 2009: Reads To Feed Your Fix

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LFbookshelf1

Books play a huge role in Live Fix. And I’m always curious to see which books are on the shelves of my favorite music writers. So during the final moments of the Open Books Blogathon 2009 I’d like to give you a peek of my bookshelf and share with you a list of books that inspire my vision for Live Fix.

As you can see my bookcase is an organized chaos set up collection of books that I’ve dog-eared and filled with notes. Each book, and author, has a special spot in my heart and has flipped the switch in my mind in one way or another for a blog post, or helped me find angles for concert reviews and artist interviews when I’m searching for a fresh perspective on a feature.

I’ve read all of these at least once and when I’m covering a festival I usually bring one of these books with me to read between sets to take a break from the music.  I would recommend these books to any aspiring music writer and fan who wants to deepen their love for music or just get inspired by a great read.

LFbookshelf2

Here’s a list of the books in the pictures:

Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

Grimms Fairy Tales

Book of Changes by Kristine McKenna

The Dead Emcee Scrolls by Saul Williams

Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

Rap Attack by David Toop

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster, Frank Broughton

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

The Beat Reader

Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain

Working Musicians by Bruce Pollock

All I Did Was Ask by Terry Gross

Working by Studs Terkel

Traces of the Spirit by Robin Sylvan

A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

Let it Blurt by Jim Derogatis

Wilco: Learning How to Die by Greg Kot

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Crowd Surfing Through the Mind of Dave Grohl

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NoAirDavidGroehl

 

 Welcome to Part Two as we continue to revisit my original conversation with No Air Guitar Allowed  author Steve Weinberger. In Part One, we began to explore the sweaty crunch and release of mosh pits.  And in Part Two we’re going to explore the mind of artists during performance by quickly crowd surfing through the mind of Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl. I’m going to jump right into this post, so if you’re just joining us, I suggest taking a quick trip through Part One to get an idea of the purpose for these short exploratory interview snippets.

What is it like inside the mind of the performing artist?

It happens all the time. I’ve done it several times, too.  And when Steve brought up the topic of wondering what goes through the mind of an artist as they look out on to the crowd during a show, he used Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl as an example.

LF: You don’t talk about this idea directly your book. But do you ever wonder if artists think about all the types of crowd behavior going on in front of them while they’re playing?   

Steve: Oh, yes. I’ve wondered about that, too.

Can you give an example of how you’ve wondered what’s going on in the artist’s mind during a concert?

I was at a Foo Fighters concert once and I starting wondering  ‘does David Grohl think about the crowd surfing and other things going on in the crowd while he’s singing? Does it influence how he plays? And does he think it takes away from the music, or is he pleased to see all the types of crowd reactions no matter what they are because it means that the crowd is enjoying the show? That particular Foo Fighters show I was at had both young and ‘older’ fans in the crowd, so I also wondered what Grohl thought of the younger crowd enjoying the music by crowd surfing and doing a bit a moshing, too.

 

 Do Artists Really Think About Crowd Behavior?

It’s true. Besides playing their instruments and performing well.  Steve was right in his wondering. Because most artists do think about the crowd and all the behavior going on in front of them.  I’ve asked this question to various artists when I’ve interviewed them. And I always get different responses.  But each response always confirms, in some way, that there’s definitely some kind of thinking  going on in the mind of the artist about the crowd’s behavior and reaction to the music.

Each artist has their own varied degree of interest and responses to crowd behavior. Some artists think about how the crowd is behaving and it has a direct influence on the performance. Some see it as an asset and other see it as an obstacle. I’ve even seen some artists get nervous if there’s no response, or the crowd responds in a way they didn’t expect them to.  

That being said, even though the artist are usually the ones amplified and elevated during the concert, the fans still possess the power to influence the artist and the show’s emotional trajectory. Knowing that, it ‘s really amazing to think about how much control  and power fans have over the artist’s mind and performance during the show.

Emotional Ebb and Flow

Some artists will admit this truth and use the crowd’s emotional  inertia to their advantage. I’ve experienced this several times where an artist will deftly recycle the crowd’s projected emotion and re-inject it back into the performance on the fly. Sometimes this happens directly or indirectly. But it only happens when an artist is flexible, vulnerable and open to the emotional ebb and flow of the show.  And that openness it usually what transforms an average show in to a transcending show that the fan never forgets. A few artists that I’ve recently reviewed come to mind such as Saul Williams, Daniel Johnston, Lady Sovereign, M.Ward, Kanye West and Radio Head.

All of those artists connect with the crowd in their own way and on different levels using their own unique method. But usually it’s only those types of artists who have the talent to be open to, aware of and tap into the crowd’s emotional barometer.  What it usually comes down to is whether or not an artist is willing to give up part of the control over the performance.  If they do then the fan will likely be lifted off their feet for two hours and beyond.

Artists who have a strong emotional connection with fans during a live show also have a deft ability to wisely acknowledge the fan’s control over the live performance. When those artists  give up the control they end up realizing how great their show can be.  In the end, artists who understand how important it is to respect the emotional relationship between them and the crowd are the ones who make their show stand out from the rest.

Have you ever wanted to walk through the mind of your favorite artist during their performance?

What have you wondered about lately at a live concert?

If you’re an artist, I’d like to get your perspective on this, too.

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On the Same Plane of Thought: Saul Williams Post-Lolla

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In keeping with the post I wrote earlier about speaking with actor/musician Saul Williams before his show and then my heightened experience afterwards, on Monday I had the pleasure of receiving an emailed fan letter containing developing thoughts as he considers his role as an artist, human being and American during an election year. Those topics simmered and then bubbled over as he traveled via plane to his next show after his Lollapalooza set last week.

It goes without saying that the letter is an engaging read and I’m always challenged by his previous open letters. But the reason that I post it here is because–even though the some of the ideas he expresses are a bit beyond me, or disagreeable—the thoughts he expresses are nonetheless ones that followed after a live show. And it’s during those after-show moments that I like to peek into an artist’s mind and see what’s going on, especially when they name specific books that spurred the thoughts, as Williams does. And it is also interesting to see the progression of thoughts he expressed from our pre-show interview back in April.

And by the looks of this letter, which was in tandem to the new video single “Convict Colony,” Williams is certainly progressing and proposing ideas related to his show experiences and songwriting, giving us a peek into what the conversation might have been like had we been sitting next to him on the plane after the show.

Dear Friends,

Although I cannot boast a lifetime of keeping my views to myself, I have seldom taken on the responsibility of trying to change someone (alright, maybe a few girlfriends, but you’ll never hold me to that). However, this year for me has been one of aggressively shifting from a reluctant pursuit of change and growth to taking a proactive stance on what I believe in times that I see as clearly representative of a societal paradigm shift both necessary and urgent for our country and world.

I received a lot of questions from some about why I would allow my song ‘List of Demands’ to be used in a Nike campaign. Ironically, half of the people now reading this post never heard of me until that commercial aired. That, indeed, was one of my reasons for allowing it. A small circle of poets and conscious do-gooders are not enough to effect the change necessary to shift our planet in peril. We must enlist people from all walks of life, people not accustomed to questioning the norm, people who may simply want to dance uninterrupted without message or slogan. I see no glory in ‘preaching to the converted’. Furthermore, I believe fully in the power of music and have branded my work with it’s own conscientious stamp and stomp of attitude fueled to steal the show in the face of the nonsensical. Quite simply, it was clear to me that people would not be rushing to the store to buy Nikes after seeing that commercial, but rather rushing to youtube or itunes to hear or download the song. I even imagined those who would be rushing to blogs to question how I could allow this to happen and the subsequent discussion of the ethical treatment of factory workers and how new minds would be informed and enlisted in the struggle for ethical change.

As an artist that characterizes himself and his work as a hybrid synthesis of creativity and responsibility I am forced to make politicized choices, weigh evils, and work strategically to make a living and contribute to the change I wish to see in my lifetime. For instance, the groundbreaking digital release of The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! wasn’t done simply because I wanted to give my album away for free and maintain my independence as an artist, but also because record companies left me little choice. As a musician I have been signed to both Columbia/Sony and Island/Def Jam rosters and have faced consistent naysayers who have basically insisted that I choose the type of music I am going to make and if the choice wasn’t according to their definition of hip hop showed little faith in it or in the possibility of a wide public supporting it, without realizing their role in determining what the public supports. Radio stations followed suit in determining my music not urban, alternative, or rock enough. Of course my music showed more rock influence than Eminem but the KROQ’s of the world seemed to be basing their definition of rock on something a little more surface than sound, at the time. Thus, I have always found myself with fans that have through their own hard work and diligence fought through the norm to find me, yet still voice surprise that more people haven’t.

The compliment “you’re ahead of your time”, often feels more like a curse than a gift from a well-wisher. I have never considered myself ahead of my time simply because a few executives may not have been visionary enough to determine where music or antiquated ideas of race are heading or to realize their role in continually underestimating the intelligence of the listener and our generation. Rather I have seen those ‘powers that be’ as behind the times and perpetuators of an old cycle. Likewise, I have seen their over-turn as inevitable. Thus, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! simply came at a point when I realized that we were, indeed, living at a crossroads and Victor Hugo’s saying, “There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come”, came to life.

Without question, we are living in powerful times, a time where the powers of being will truly prevail over the powers that be. This is evident in the political sector where it has become clear, at least to me, that my support of Barack Obama is not because he’s black, but because he seems to represent both symbolically and ideologically many of those ideas and ideals whose time has come. Ideas of the divine need for change (“God’s just a baby and her diaper is wet.” Get it?) in how we look at the world, ourselves, and at our individual and communal powers. The idea that might is right, that we demonstrate our power with aggressive force is great for football teams, but hardly the best idea for a country whose running source of pride has historically been the evidence of our collective imagination: our music; our films; our amusement parks; and the technology we create to share it. These products of peace are the things that made the world initially fall in love with us. We have rooted ourselves in a growing sense of independence as evidenced through our historic social movements, always upgrading our beliefs and laws to reflect our broadening understanding and vision. Of course, many, if not most, would label this a very optimistic perspective of the ongoing struggle for justice and equal opportunity for all people in this land. There is still a fight to have our voices heard and many of us when given the opportunity to speak seem to have very little to say. Then are those who have consistently fought against growth and change, who would rather fight for their right to maintain their antiquated, sometimes ignorant points of view, as if the age of the perspectives themselves is what validates them. Yet, the first technology is of the mind. It is the shift in perspective that allows us to streamline possibilities of understanding as reflected through invention. And quite simply, we are coming of age.

In this age it is our responsibility to challenge ourselves beyond cultural traditions and delineate between what we have perpetuated through ignorance rather than wisdom. We face an opportunity to broaden our worldview through the exchange of technology and information. We need not rely on what teachings of the past could not anticipate. It is an opportunity to forge ahead and beyond the wavering shortsightedness of our religious leaders, elected officials, teachers, principals, and sometimes parents and live in simple accordance with what we can feel deep within ourselves. We should no longer be surprised to sometimes find ourselves seemingly more intelligent, informed, or insightful than our leaders and bosses, rather we should feel encouraged to inspire and share our most informed selves in our every encounter. And that, my friends, is what has led me to write you today.

While sitting on a plane, on my way back from Lollapalooza, reading Thanking The Monkey by Karen Dawn, it struck me that this was the second awesomely inspiring and informative book I was reading this summer without sharing my thanks by spreading the word. I am sometimes hesitant about making a big deal about my vegan diet, as I have considered it a personal choice worth little discussion. Yet more and more, I have found myself attempting to encourage people who ask me where I find my inspiration, or what issues do I find important, or how can we curb warfare and violence to consider what we ingest. A story was recently recounted to me of a popular TV chef who chose to raise little piglets on his show to insure that they were fed organic food and not injected with chemicals (as is the practice on most factory farms), all for the sake of fattening them up for their slaughter and another primetime recipe. Yet, the time that this chef spent with these pigs taught him a valuable lesson (more valuable for the pigs, no doubt). What he learned was how intelligent pigs are. In fact, in recent times, it is common knowledge for most that pigs are arguably more intelligent than “mans best friend” and companion, the dog. For our chef, this meant switching gears and realizing that he could not consciously kill this intelligent animal, that it would constitute a murder as brutal as slicing your fluffy pets neck and watching it writhe and bleed to death, or sticking an electric prod up its ass and electrocuting it, if the fur or skin is of value…

It may seem like I have just taken a turn to the graphically extreme, I wouldn’t want to make you “lose your lunch”, but these are the common practices perpetuated by the factory farm industry on millions of animals a day, in the name of your breakfast lunch and dinner. And, no, I’m not simply talking about pigs, but also cows, chickens, turkey, horses (that’s right horses. Everyday), and fish. Everyday, our species participates in the mass genocide of other species without care or concern or even questioning whether the violence that we ingest and condone plays any role in our apathetic support of the war machine we have become. How is it that we as human beings can represent both the highest and most developed and lowest and least concerned forms of intelligence of any living species? Are we simply glued to age-old barbaric traditions that cloud our senses and render us inhumane in our dependence on comfort foods and practices? Is our dependence on foreign oil the only thing we need to curb? What about not so foreign species?

Some might argue that artists are a race or species apart from the common person. Yet we all identify with the teachings of Gandhi, the genius of Einstein, the art of Leonardo Da Vinci, Picasso, Rembrandt and the talent and compassion of living artists like Alice Walker, Will Smith, The Mars Volta, Dead Prez, Prince and countless others. Some of us choose to emulate their styles, their fashion, their career choices, but why not their diets? If our brightest most celebrated stars all have this one thing in common why are we so slow in connecting the dots for ourselves? Perhaps the biggest issue at hand is not what our cars run on, but essentially what do we run on? The fact is that factory farms are the number one users of crude oil, not cars. That’s basically what it takes to kill approximately one million chickens per hour (just in the US). More than half of our water supply goes to feed animals being fattened for slaughter. The methane gases that contribute to global warming are produced majorly by cow farts in factory farms, not to mention the amount of fossil fuels needed to create just one pound of beef.

Yep. You doing the math? Basically if we shifted our compassion towards animals, the domino effect would heal the planet. We’d no longer be cutting down rain forests to create more space for cows to graze, we’d stop depleting the ocean of the necessary (keyword: necessary) food chains that our eco system depends on, diseases including many cancers, heart disease, obesity, and others which find their root in the food/toxins we ingest would slowly disappear as would our taste for violence.
Which brings me to the other book I read this summer that inspired me to reevaluate every aspect of what I’ve been taught through the news and media, especially concerning the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. That book is The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.

So what are you reading?

I know what you should be listening to,

Niggy.

Aftr reading this I had mixed emotions, because, like I said before, Williams is never one to hold back some hard to swallow thoughts, which is the same reason why I think he is an artist worth writing about (and listening to) more than once.

And when it comes to most music fans, the truth is that many are quick to judge and many artists suffer from speaking their mind, and as a result choose not to for fear of losing their fans because of differing views and opinion beyond the music.

Hey, so what about you there? Have you ever read a letter or a quote from an artist that you enjoyed and then afterwards lost interest in their music because of what they said, or vice versa?

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What is A BAAD Show?

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Saul Williams

Saul Williams

A few weeks back I spoke with actor, musician and poet Saul Williams before his show in Chicago at Marytrs for a future story for Popmatters. If you’re new to Saul Williams you might have heard his music in a gym shoe ad but he’s being making music, writing books of poetry and making movies for the last ten years and in November he released his third album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust for free or for $5 on his website.

Our conversation focused on the album, the interesting title and what it means to the listener beyond the issue of race. And even though I’ve spoken to artists before a performance several times in the past, I have to say that our talk was a pre-show conversation that I will always remember as having a huge impact on how I took in the performance.

In lieu of this experience I’ve used an acronym—Before After and During (BAAD)—to describe the dramatic train of events that night and have since discovered that several performances usually follow this compelling trek along the performance transformation timeline, a entertaining journey of stimulation during a performance that we usually take for granted, happy when it goes as expected or better and disappointed when it doesn’t.

But during that night each sequence was more pronounced and vivid than usual, making me want to recount the night here. Even though the following recount is a bit out of sequence of the actual acronym, the overall impact of this BAAD theory tends to hold true when I look back at past shows. So let me explain just how much of an impact BAAD played on the night of April 18th.

Before: During our pre-show conversation, Williams was dressed in his usual eclectic and eccentric garb of purple coat and green sunglasses. And he spoke deliberately, balancing a calm tone with moments of necessary inflection to get his point across as I asked questions about the album and his career. The feel of our conversation was similar to previous conversations as we covered all the necessary topics and meandered as needed, his responses leaving me excited to see what the show would be like.

During: The house lights were brought down and the crowd began to chat and rumble. Stage left Williams marched out on stage in full costume with his band. He was covered in sparkling body paint and sporting a Mohawk of an Indian-chief with feathers shooting off in all directions. I was stunned as how much his stage demeanor had so drastically changed in intensity compared to what it was like during our conversation.

Williams had transformed and now the dail was cranked and he stood like a warrior ready to conquer his fans and take us for a ride for the next two hours, as the set caught fire and blazed like a raging inferno, a combination of George Clinton, David Bowie or Sly Stone and Chuck D.

After: Even though I mean after as “after our conversation, I had even deeper thoughts about what had just happened during the ride home; I was in awe and had to settle down, just ask my wife. I thought about other performers and how they prepare to give their fans an amazing performance, even if the fans are not able to see the artist before as I did with Williams’ show.

How do artists overcome this hurdle since they obviously can’t have the entire crowd in their dressing room before the show?

I’ve read several interviews as artists talk about their preshow routine that lets them know it’s show time. Regina Spector says she puts on lipstick moments before she goes on stage so she knows that is time to perform, French electro-rockers Justice talk about their preshow routine that appears to be a mixture of religion and superstition; other artists pray with band members or meditate and some artist throw up or use a mixture of drugs and alcohol to get amped up (or loose) to perform.

So I began to wonder beyond the compelling transformation of my pre-show chat with Williams and think about the importance of preshow rituals and their impact to our enjoyment of the show? And do they even work as much as the artist think they do or are they just a psychological trick to push down nerves and performance anxiety? And how much do us as fans expect the artist to be able to make that leap, a leap that Williams had made and then some, and apparently for him, he needed a full costume. He fed off the excitement of the chanting sold out crowd and part of that audience excitement was a part of his performance just as much as his face paint and furious lyrics, beats and rhythms were.

But I still wonder how different the Saul Williams’ show would have been had not seen or spoken with him before the show. Would the show have made such an impact? Would I have felt like something was missing from his performance if I had nothing to compare the onstage personae to?

What about the songs specifically? During our conversation we talked in depth about the lyrics and how the songs were changing as they continued to tour. Several moments during the show I flashed back to our chat, checking what he said against what I was seeing on stage. Who Williams was backstage was who he was on stage and I know I would not have been doing that had I not talked with him prior. I am certain that our chat made the show much better than what I would have been. And I mean that in a contextual way, helping me to better understand Williams as he revealed more and more of himself with each passing lyric and furious beat.

Before, After and During. This is a new way to look at a show whether I’m reviewing it or not, a perspective that will make me think differently the next time the house lights go down and the show begins.

So what about you? Have you ever had a similar experience at a live show? Do you think it’s good to see an artist before their show or not? Do you think it takes away from the show or adds to it?

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How to Run for President and Rock the Stage

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Senator Barack Obama has all but wrapped up the democratic nomination but how much of an impact did his presence on the live concert stage help in spreading the word?

Back in February, I mentioned how I saw flyers of Senator Obama on the face of the double drum kits of the opening band Office. Well, two months later in April, before headliner Saul Williams took the stage at Martyrs’, I once again was presented with another double dose of Obama support as an audience member, curiosity of funk-punk rockers Dragons of Zynth. But this time the expression of support was larger, more prominent and came in the form of two glossy two-foot framed images of a sky-gazing Obama with “HOPE” written along the bottom of the picture. Those posters flanked the stage and rumbled on their stands as Dragons of Zynth added more vigor and rock n roll muscle to a political campaign that seems to only get stronger every day.

A recent news story mentioned how Obama’s presence in popular music and strong support by several hip hop artists has earned him a large amount of attention in areas other candidates struggled to get support. And, yes, I’ve seen several other similar displays of Obama support while at other shows and but this Dragon’s of Zynth demonstration made me question how successful these displays of support will be in November, and if it is enough to empower the politically disengaged music fans when the time comes for them to cast their vote in November, whether they want Obama to win or not.

And I’m also wondering how strong the connection has been for fans between the political expressions and the music, or have fans just been blocking out the Obama posters and simply focusing on the live experience they paid for, regardless of their political stance. I know I heard a mix of cheers and grumbles when the posters when up, expressing the shared excitement, the triteness of the Obama bandwagon and the uneasiness of mixing entertainment and politics in the same experience.

There’s no doubt that Obama welcomes the support (solicited or not) and his campaign advisors have certainly thought about the impact of having his face visible at every level of popular music, with the goal of having a solid positive and progressive connection between the music experience and the campaign message of “hope and change.”

So what are your thoughts about seeing Obama or other political support while at a concert this year or in the past? Do political demonstrations or similar expressions at rock concerts annoy you or inspire you?

Join the experiment and drop me a comment or an email, letting me know what you think.

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