It's a quiet Wednesday night at the Ready Room. I'm in the bathroom reading graffiti on the stall walls, killing time while I wait for the show to start. I didn't have time to go home after work, I'm solo tonight, and I'm not much of a drinker, so bathroom graffiti's the best I can come up with pregame-wise. It's pretty good, but a quick read, so it's not long before I mosey on back to the bar and order my one drink of the evening. I sip slowly and wait.
I'm still sipping at the bar when Porter Ray starts his set, and I don't exactly run to the stage the minute he comes on. Porter Ray is new to me, and my plan is to wait patiently for him to entice me into the next room. It doesn't take long at all. It's probably about half-way through his second song when I make the long journey from the bar stool to the wall stool around the corner, and there I pause to jot down my first impressions.
He's visually intriguing with a colorful scarf draped over his head, slim-fitting jacket and drop crotch shorts. His lanky limbs and energetic stage presence jive perfectly with a fast-paced delivery of impressively wordy (and therefore sometimes hard to decipher) phrases. As I move closer and try to make out a word or two, I'm struck by the emotional and intellectual depth of his lyrics. Genuine feeling and insight shine through Porter Ray's intelligently crafted rhymes.
Unfortunately, these luminous threads are too often lost in a rather dull tapestry of stereotypical hip hop tropes: bragging about sexual conquests, objectification of women unconvincingly disguised as adoration, and near-obsessive references to designer brands and expensive cars. During these digressions, Porter Ray reminds me of the "horny" and "greedy" mainstream rappers that Shabazz Palaces will gripe about later in the evening. Still, I'm impressed. There's room for fine-tuning, but Porter Ray is a talented lyricist with plenty of technical skill and an appealing bardish style.
In stark contrast to Porter Ray's youthful energy and eager-to-please persona, Shabazz Palaces are the epitome of middle-age cool: measured, detached, effortlessly eccentric, and age-appropriately disapproving of popular culture. The duo walk past the audience and onto the stage while a booming Wizard-of-Oz-esque voice leads us in prayer, "Our Father, who art on Wall Street..." From the beginning, it's understood that the audience has gathered here tonight to worship, not to be entertained. The set covers their full discography, from Black Up to Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines, and flows seamlessly over a persistent thudding of electronic beats that keep the audience physically and mentally tethered to the performance.
Tendai Maraire's drumming is the star of the live show (the duo's synchronized choreography at the beginning of "Youlogy" and Ishmael Butler's stiff granddad-style swaying throughout are close runners-up). Maraire's versatile and agile rhythms build beautifully on heavy foundational beats, and serve as a line of human connection in an otherwise intentionally distant performance.
Shabazz Palaces' audience engagement techniques are powerful, verging on subversive. Guided by their hypnotic combination of rhythm, lyrics and idiosyncratic "dancing," I engage in an array of involuntary and uncharacteristic behaviors. I dance (not a thing I do), I close my eyes and contemplate cultural appropriation (I do this, but not in public), I stare up into Butler's grinning face and smile stupidly without a coherent thought in my head, all according to their whim.
The highlight of my night comes when I snap out of my trance and go take a break at the wall stools. As I turn from the stage, Porter Ray grabs my attention at the back of the room, smiling and dancing perhaps even more energetically than he did during his own set. I watch him in what I hope is a non-creepy way, and create an imaginary relationship between the two acts in my mind. Shabazz Palaces plays the role of critical-yet-supportive father figures, and Porter Ray, the kid who simultaneously knows it all and desperately strives for the elders' wisdom and approval.
Click the image below to see all of Doug Tull's photos of the evening's performances.