There's a reason why Ghostface Killah, aka Tony Starks, aka Pretty Toney, is often referred to as one of the most prolific MCs. Since his first couple of solo albums in the early '90s, Ghost has been no stranger to the concept album and gritty tales of a life of crime, often inhabiting a fictional character for story and entertainment purposes. And Ghost continues that same ambition in conjunction with film soundtrack composer Adrian Younge.
Co-billed to Younge and Killah, the new release "Twelve Reasons to Die" is an ambitious concept album more comparable to MC Willy Shakespheare rather than anything in the hip hop canon. The album is full of beautiful and lush arrangements of live instrumentation and operatic vocals courtesy of Younge's band, Venice Dawn. Ghostface Killah's lyrics are front and center on the record, easy to decipher and follow, making the familiar story of gangster has it all, gangster is killed, gangster rises from the dead to exact revenge even easier to comprehend. Although the album is phenomenal, such was not the case with the half-baked live performance of "Twelve Reasons to Die" on Saturday.
Although Ghost and the band, Venice Dawn, essentially performed the album in full, it was difficult to follow and a little over-ambitious at times. It was as if, Ghost and Younge felt as if they could tour behind the album and perform the piece as a full-blown drama-musical complete with stage effects and lighting, maybe in the vein of "Jesus Christ Superstar." Maybe the musicians thought they'd be performing in larger venues with extravagant lighting and other such accommodations. With such over-the-top ideas in mind, the minimal set-up at 2720 Cherokee fell a bit short of Ghostface's expectations: "Man, you all only got two lights?! We need different lighting for every song! These people paid money for this shit!"
Right off the bat it was clear that the lines between the hip-hop concert and the drama performance had become erratic and blurred. First Younge and his band Venice Dawn took the stage and ripped out some psychedelic soul jams sans Ghostface for maybe an hour or so. The band is actually pretty badass, sounding like the most far-out side of Woodstock '69 filtered through the most gritty Blaxploitation soundtrack. Able to lay some slick and sexy shit down as well as rock out some crazy, amped-up, nearly punkish soul, the band was in full effect and sounded good. Graced by a male-female vocal duo, the two were seemingly the only ones to stay in character throughout the set. It was cool, but it wasn't why I came to the show.
Finally, Ghost hopped onstage to spit a completely inaudible verse; the pissed off MC then grabbed one of the accompanying singer's microphones and immediately started to rail against the poor sound guy(s). Hollering to "Turn the mic up!" and referring to the sound engineering as "Some bullshit." Unfortunately, the microphone volume issues continued. Both non-functioning mics and feedback plagued parts of the performance.
Ultimately, Ghostface and his cohort, Killah Priest, were tough to hear clearly. The "Twelve Reasons to Die" story was basically performed in its entirety with highlights being the dramatic "Beware of the Star," "Enemies All Around Me," and an outstanding vocal perfomance on "I Declare War," during which Ghost seemed fascinated by the female vocalist's pitch-perfect ascent. Interspersed throughout the "Twelve Reasons" performance were obvious Wu Tang excerpts like "Protect Ya Neck," "C.R.E.A.M." and "Tearz." "Protect Ya Neck," and various audience members took over the famous verses of Method Man and Old Dirty Bastard. Throughout the set Ghostface sounded great, aggressively spitting his rhymes as consistent as ever. However, it was difficult to pick up on the intricacies of his and Killah Priest's lyrics. Adrian Younge, when not playing the bass or keys, took up the role of the narrator of the story of "Twelve Reasons to Die." This was a bit silly at times, again showing how the performance was unsure of whether it wanted to be a full-blown theatre performance or a rap concert.
Overall, Ghostface Killah seemed to be a guest rapper to Adrian Younge and the Venice Dawn band, as the band seemed to play just as much without him on stage. But when Ghostface was on, he was really on. He had presence on the stage and spit with venom all night. But this production needs to take a much more bold stance. The performers seemed constantly unaware of which direction to go and haphazardly plodded through with the "Twelve Reasons" story, going through the motions of the performance. Things were much more rowdy and fun when Ghostface committed to straight hip-hop of the Wu Tang bangers.
Opening acts, the 12 to 6 Movement, Tef Poe and Black Spade all did their respective things and represented a burgeoning hip-hop scene right here in St. Louis. Tef Poe and Black Spade got everyone pumped up with their gut-wrenching beats and socially-conscious raps, and the 12 to 6 Movement hopped around the stage swigging brews and sporting attitudes not seen since Beastie Boys circa "Lincensed to Ill."