Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Wu-Tang at Congress Theater

Saturday night, the mighty Wu-Tang Clan, pride of Staten Island, took to the stage at Chicago's Congress Theater. But fans had to wait, and wait, for the pleasure. Doors opened at 7:30, but there was a long delay before anything happened on stage, and then what felt like a never-ending stream of opening acts made their appearances. First up was DJ Rude One, who was a fairly low-key presence on stage, but played an impeccable selection of records by East Coast hip-hop acts. (The inclusion of "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" by Houston rappers the Geto Boys was something of an anomaly, but it's a classic, so I'm not going to nitpick.) I was particularly impressed with the way he inter-weaved several tracks by Nas, making the unrelated songs into a sort of mini-suite. Next up was Que Billah, an artist I was completely unfamiliar with. The only conclusion I can make is that Billah is some kind of '90s rap revivalist: he took the stage with a posse of over-eager hype-men, one of whom wore a backpack the entire set; Billa himself removed his left shoe at one point to emphasize the importance of sneakers; and at least twenty minutes of his set was devoted to covers of iconic rap recordings by performers far more successful than himself. I don't really know what to make of Billa's placement on the night's roster. Next up was Chicago native and current candidate for 20th ward alderman, Rhymefest. He performed a sampling of songs from his current album El Che and his 2006 debut Blue Collar. Rhymefest was heavy on audience interaction, even bringing an audience member on stage to rap Kanye West's verse for one song. (His version was quite proficient, I thought.) To their credit, the opening acts seemed cognizant of their second-fiddle status. Both Rhymefest and Que-Billa made mention of having seen Wu-Tang perform on that same stage back in 2006, and Mr. Billa candidly posed the question, "Who can open for Wu-Tang?" It was after Rhymefest's set that the video screen onstage lit up with a giant yellow Wu-Tang logo. The crowd took this to mean that the headliners were up next, but no, it was tangential Wu-affiliate LA the Darkman who took the stage. His repeated statement "I'm LA the Darkman and I represent that mighty, mighty Wu-Tang" was cold comfort for many in the audience, myself included. The Darkman was a powerful presence onstage, standing alone in the harsh lights and frequently dropping verses without DJ backing. (He name-checked DJ Muggs, and performed the track "Devil in a Blue Dress" from the now-classic Muggs album Soul Assassins.) His flow was impressive, and many in the audience expressed familiarity with his songs, but no one seemed sorry to see his set come to an end. Anticipation was sky-high at this point, and the chants of "Wu-Tang, Wu-Tang" repeatedly reached crescendo and died away.

Then, they were there, insouciantly filing in from stage right. This will sound strange, but Ghostface Killah, aka Tony Stark, seemed literally to be larger than life. He wore an over-sized red parka and matching red beanie, and there were several long moments where I thought, "Wow. How about that." Method Man confidently sported a pink scarf and bedazzled belt, which did nothing to diminish his well-known masculine swagger. GZA, aka The Genius, was spartanly attired in black long-sleeved shirt and no-nonsense jeans. Also in attendance: Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, Capadonna, and a man I didn't recognize. While I'm taking stock of the group members and trying to account for the absence of Raekwon the Chef, the performance is already under way. DJ Mathmatics provided an appropriately grimy bed of noise for the emcees, who swiftly ran through canonical tracks from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu-Tang Forever, and The W. It was Method Man who seemed to take charge of the proceedings, greeting the crowd with a charmingly subdued, "Good evening, Chicago. Welcome to the Wu-Tang show." (RZA, nominal leader of the Wu-collective, is not part of this tour. He is currently working on a film.) It was also Methond Man who brought the one truly sour note to the evening when he announced that Raekwon wouldn't be appearing, due to a "family emergency." Not giving us any time to lament this fact, the group continued to run through songs at a breakneck pace. The members generally paced the floor and focused on the music, but Method Man was inspired to jump, dance, and occasionally dive into the audience where he was held aloft by fans. Ghostface, always an anarchic personality, contentedly shuffled/danced about in the opposite direction of his fellow performers, grinning to himself. Method Man announced that we'd reached the part of the show where the performers like to pay tribute to former group member O.D.B. (Russell Tyrone Jones, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 35.) Then, he threw us a curve-ball. He announced that O.D.B. himself would be with us that night, and not metaphorically. This was a bit confusing, but the build-up served a purpose. O.D.B.'s first-born son, who does seem to resemble his father, rushed the stage and performed a couple high-energy tracks. He did a fine job recreating his father's legendary arrhythmical warble on "Shimmy Shimmy Ya." This was a fun surprise for the audience, and it seemed to me that Method Man went to great pains to build up the young man's confidence and make him comfortable in front of the large audience. The heir of "Big Baby Jesus" left the stage, and it was clear that the show was already winding down. Method Man thanked the audience for coming out, but a barrage of boos must have convinced him it wasn't quite time to hit the after-party yet. Several more songs were run through, the audience shouted along with the lyrics. It was after 12:30 at this point, but I think the audience would have gladly stayed another hour if the performers had been willing. I know I would have.

General Observations:

Waiting in line outside the main doors, I noticed that kitty-corner to the Congress is a martial arts studio. It seemed appropriate that the kung-fu obsessed rap collective would perform near a dojo.

DJ Rude One put on a "Depte Lives" t-shirt midway through his session. I assume this is a tribute to the Chicago graffiti artist of that name who passed away in 2005, but I may be mistaken.

Throughout his set, Rhymefest tossed handfuls of El Che CDs into the crowd, at one point deadpanning: "I'm about to be alderman, I can't sell this s&%# anymore."

According to more informed internet sources, Raekwon's "family emergency" was a solo concert in New Jersey. I'd rather not believe that rumor, but whatever.

Apparently, ancillary Wu-member Streetlife was the performer I was unable to identify during the Wu-Tang performance. Sorry to say, he made no impression on me whatsoever.

I find it telling that in RZA's absence, no songs were performed from the 2007 album 8 Diagrams. The emcees resistance to RZA's - visionary  - production on that album has been well documented, and I have to assume that the touring members just weren't interested in revisiting those tracks.