Saturday, April 01, 2006

Black Lily L.A.

      I’ve lived in Silverlake for years and pass El Cid Mexican restaurant a couple of times a day, almost everyday. Never had the desire to go in. Based on the mythology that has sprung up around Black Lily – the ever shifting Negro/hip-hop performance collective that started as jam sessions by the Roots in Questlove’s living room in Philly, evolved into hot-ticket open mic gigs and has since sprouted branches in London and New York – neither Silverlake nor El Cid were what came to mind when it was announced that there’d be a Black Lily gig in L.A. (Jill Scott, Jazzyfatnastees and Floetry are some of the names that have flowered through the Black Lily association; U.K critical and cult darlings Omar and Julie Dexter are just a few of the already established cool names that have been brought under the collective’s umbrella.)
      But on March 21st, there we be – rolling down Sunset and dipping down the hill to the back entrance of El Cid. A line at the front door snaked down the block an hour before show time. A voice-mail from Kim Hill earlier in the day had strongly urged me to be there – she’d phoned Rahsaan Patterson and asked him to be her “surprise” guest, planning to turn over a chunk of her alloted stage time so that the OG’s of LA indie niggra music could represent.
      The crowd was exactly the multi-culti mix you’d expect: every race and ethnicity; studied sartorial eclecticism and calculated non-conformity mingled with b-boy cliché and hood rat improvisational chic. The women were every shade of gorgeous. The men… not so much. I stood close to the stage and a crew of Compton’s finest (and loudest) planted themselves behind me. They immediately started panting for J Davey, who was clearly the big draw of the night.
      Black Thought was the night’s emcee and he was ridiculous, killing it on the mic between acts, free-styling with the sparsest of accompaniment and looking like a Hershey bar sprung to life. Almonds, of course. He emitted the contradictory vibe of I’on quite know what the fuck is going on up here and We run this…
      First up was Paris-to-LA transplant April King, a light-skin’ded, apple-cheeked sister who exuded positivity. I wanted to love her. She sat behind the drum kit and pounded out a dope pattern of beats. But as her words hit my ears, trepidation set in. When she dropped the pearls, “True bliss is oneness with infinity…” I tuned out. Tuned in again when she introduced her keyboard player Brandon, who joined her onstage and kicked up a nice little groove, only to have King coo, “I need your juice to fill my cup…” The young-ish crowd whistled, whooped and clapped their approval. I thought of all the jazz divas who’ve slyly massaged the classic “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl” and couldn’t be impressed by this fifth generation salaciousness. Still, something about Ms. King was too winning to allow straight-up dismissiveness and her sincere, wide-faced grin at the end of her set was contagious.
      Following another turn by Thought (backed only by drums), New York’s King James took the stage. A white girl undulated at the foot of the stage throughout their poppy hip-hop inflected set, and the cliché’s flowed from there. “Don’t y’all think Kevin Federline is the white Bobby Brown?” lamely quipped the lead singer between songs and embarrassingly bad dance moves. Though he’s a fit enough guy, he moves like someone who either has lost a ton of weight and not yet gained ownership of his new body, or someone for whom a heavier-footed gait awaits in the future. Regardless, he was graceless and corny.
       “Anyone from Oakland in the building?!” yelled poet/singer/powerhouse Jennifer Johns as she took the stage. “Tell me when to go!” She kicked off her shoes and jumped head first into her opening song, finally getting the concert started. A full-figured sister who’s like a [much] more gully Jill Scott (I would not fuck with her), Johns sang her ass off, riding riddims, chanting, toasting, speed-rapping, crooning and then wailing. Patented LA reserve worked her last nerve, though, as the crowd was initially reluctant to give her her due. “I know Los Angeles think they cute and shit,” she said dryly, “but you niggas is gon’ have to throw yo hands in the air! Let me hear you scream fiyah!” Off came her earrings. She soon had the crowd yelling and roiling as a teeming mass.
      The only downside to her rousing set was a lack of graciousness on her part regarding April King. Not having her own band with her, Johns used King as a stand-in drummer and though the former Parisian was technically proficient, she was very slick, very polished. At one point, a clearly exasperated Johns set up a song with, “Wait, wait. I wanna make sure this ain’t too jazzy, too sexy. I want it grimey. I’m from the ‘Town.” She asked for a dancehall thang. King widened her eyes and gave an uncertain smile, looking at Brandon like “Whuh???” She pounded out a perfectly fine but apparently too pristine thang. Johns exhaled and rolled her eyes, saying “Uh, okay…” She gave a similar response after requesting “a lil’ drum & bass situation” and not getting quite what she wanted. As a civilian, it seemed to me very uncool that a fellow artist would help out a peer, only to be kinda clowned for her best efforts. But like I said, I wouldn’t want to fuck with Miss Jennifer Johns and I'm more than willing to concede that I might've observed this shit all wrong.
      Next up was Sacramento’s own Dallas Reeves: tall, light skin, obviously good hair parted into two braids that brushed his shoulders. A discount Ben Harper. With his meandering, bloodless ballads, he sucked the life right outta the room. “You complete my soul,” he sang with tightly squinted eyes. “We were meant to be together forever lady…” Ah, I thought to myself. I get it. This is get-the-boho-panties music. But for those of us not wearing panties (and some who were) it was torture. Still, his set gave me the chuckle of the night. At one point, Reeves turned his back to the crowd and, between his too-tight low-rise jeans and too small shirt, a bountiful dish of yellow ass-cleavage was served to the crowd, who let out a collective “ewww.” Normally, I am a fan of said dish but I had to agree. One of the Compton crew behind me yelled out “C’mon man! You got that young ass shirt on!”
      Following that was Pearl, a skinny white woman blues singer – “Izzat Nicole Kidman?” asked Compton, when she first walked onstage – who had Anthrax’s Scott Ian on guitar. Although her brief bluesy set was actually good, it was the wrong crowd. And having the misfortune of following Reeves put her in the hole from the go. She won some enthusiastic applause for a song called “Worth Defending,” about the need we all have for a hero once in a while, but was ill-served by being on the bill – a backfire to the forced diversity.
      Kim Hill followed and just about succeeded in bringing the energy level back up. (Her band included Sy Smith on keys.) Sashaying out in hip-hop diva mode – both exaggeratedly playful and oh, so real – she sucked in her cheeks, served attitude and had the crowd in the palm of her hand. Though her quips about the room’s humidity fucking up her freshly pressed hair endeared her to the audience, she brought he house down with the new song, “That’s What You Get,” a scalding kiss-off to a Negro male who dogs black women and reflexively ups white girls. Wagging a beheaded Barbie Doll as a crowd-pleasing prop, she ripped her set.
      Still, the night belonged to Rahsaan Patterson. Kim brought him out after performing her song “Mars” and he immediately stole the WHOLE night with his simmering/elastic this-is-mine-now cover of Sade’s “Love is Stronger Than Pride.” When he first walked onstage, kinda shy, small-framed, the antithesis of the cartoonish niggery that floods the marketplace, the boho couple next to me smirked; the head-wrapped woman rolled her eyes and her man made a face. You gotta love those afro bohos who stand high on the mountain of ridiculousness: I renounce pork, any scent that doesn’t come in a funky little bottle from the hands of a street corner Muslim, blue-eyed Jesus and the evils of capitalism. But homophobia? Yeah, I’ll rock that shit...
      But Rah destroyed them, killed them softly with his song. Burrowing into Ms. Adu's classic, he turned it inside out – made it a hymn, a chant, a lancing of shame/regret/bliss and reconciliation to the fact of love’s power to both heal and degrade. He just wrecked it. By the time he left the stage, the woman had her eyes closed and was waving both hands like she was in church. So was almost everyone else in the place.
      Then J Davey came on and – me not getting their appeal a'tall – I left mid-way through their first song. Went to order Jennifer John’s CD and play some old Rahsaan.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love the comments about "homophobia? yeah, I'll rock that!"...

Thanks for the good read!