Any time you hype an act up thisbig before you've seen it live, there's the worry that they might fail to deliver onstage the same goods as they do on record. And for a just a minute there last night, during the Stahi Brothers' relatively lackluster opening set of old school bell rocking, I wondered if Shabazz Palaces, despite his EPs being pure fire, might disappoint. No need to worry, though—Shabazz Palaces burned the packed house down to the motherfucking ground (...GREAT WHITE).
The set began with Shabazz mastermind Ishmael Butler standing, absurdly yet credibly magisterial in a red headscarf and shades, behind a tabletop sampler and laptop, flanked by drummer Tendai "Baba" Maraire playing hand percussion. Mizell was spot-on here: "it's a hypnotizing, almost regal presence...Shabazz Palaces don't have to tear up the block; they energize the scene without breaking a sweat." The sound was superb, the bass low and enveloping, the digital handclaps and hihats crisp and ricocheting, the live percussion rounding things out, Butler's vocals kept clear and calmly commanding (Neumos co-owner Steven Severin told me that Butler had requested Neumos specifically because he liked the sound there—and also that the show was particularly tricky to book).
For "Chuch," with its hazily looped chant, Butler and drummer were joined by two women in luminescent facepaint who danced on the side of the stage, kinetic and elegant, while Butler snarled the songs mantra of "survival with style." There was a shouted tease of "Blastit!" and an uproar in the crowd. "Gunbeat Falls," with its broken-key piano loop (sounds like a sample DJ Shadow might've used circa Endtroducing), got a hearty (if spotty) call and response from the crowd on its line "push the button/START THE SHOW," the audience shouting what on the album is delivered deadpan. They played the sinisterly funky "My Mac Yawns," its refrain of "yeah pretty much motherfuckin' good times" still sounding a little ambiguous in a good-times-are-killing-me sort of way but landing in that live setting as more celebratory than not.
For "4 Shadows," Maraire broke out the mbira thumb piano, asking the audience if they knew what it was and pinking out a few introductory notes into the mic to let them know, and Silk (aka Dougie, "your dad") joined Butler on the mic. Butler beat out thick bass drum kicks on his sampler pads while rapping, then shook a giant percussion gourd while Dougie did his part (he kicked of the next song shaking a pair of maracas into his mic). The bleary, bass-burping "Find Out," with its floating, squeaky flute line, sounded outstanding, Butler's affirmations resoundingly authoritative: "find out what you can and be it—that's what's up, that's what's up." The disco ball lit up, casting blue stars around the room for the eerie, dystopian night-drive of "Capital 5", a sprawling two-part song (Silk's verse is ace on this one), centered on Butler's refrain to be "a bright light on the dark side of town," all floating around the city streets, ghost-of-Seattle-present style, "up on Jackson, up on King, we makin' a right," past the "old African heads meet up at Starbucks," a tour of Seattle like a dark inversion of Mix's old "Posse on Broadway," ("suicide bombers" taking the place of crack heads, for instance).
There was another shout of "Blastit!' from onstage; between this and the song's trademark mbira popping up on other tracks, they were really teasing the hell out of this one (a shining highlight that apparently almost didn't make it onto the self-titled EP but for producer Erik Blood's insistence). Introducing the next track, Maraire handily dismissed any poor souls (hey, SW) still wringing their hands over whether or not the rest of the hip hop world is giving a shit about Seattle: "Are we on the map or what?" (Huge cheers.) "We been on the map since day one." They did the dancehall flavored "Hottabatch," Butler's convincingly adopted patois backed once again by those two female dancers. When they—finally!—broke into "Blastit" there was a hush over the crowd, allowing the mbira's dinky acoustic sound to ring out clear; Butler triggered some stuttering blast vocals on his sampler, and stood there nodding, looking super sure (deservedly so, this show was killing), but other than the occasional repetition of "blastit!" they played it out almost instrumental, leaving out (some?) the song's excellent pithy verse. (Matson says they did the verse; I might've missed it somehow, because my notes say they skipped it.)
They played "Kill White T," its squeezed-out horn samples and police-and-thieves speakeasy casino lyrics evoking a certain cafe anarchista atmosphere. They closed with the personable gutter-funk lope of "A Mess" ("see, I'm just like you/yeah, I know I'm a mess..."), it's great "yeah!" vocal sample sadly missing, Butler host Candidt shouting out pretty much every local hip hop crew except Champagne Champagne on the song's extended outro (an omission corrected shortly afterwards).
The show's encore was a madly triumphant rendition of the Jake One 206 posse cut "Home" (whose video is also a flip/homage of Mix's old-school Seattle), the Stahi Brothers back out to do their parts, Butler sounding more unabashedly street-level than on his Shabazz's more lofty cerebral cuts, someone shouting "this is for the town," the whole song playing out with a drum outro and chants of "Seattle!"
So, clearly, Shabazz has the town sewed up tight, but now that his "secret" identity is all out there, the real mystery becomes: How far is Butler planning to take Shabazz Palaces? I can imagine a ton of labels would love to scoop up the two Shabazz EPs, repackage them as one slick-as-hell album and sell them nation- if not world-wide, but his whole cryptic DIY approach suggests that maybe he's just not that interested in moving units (he has been there, done that, won the Grammy, got Tide money, after all). On the other hand, how tightly he's crafted every aspect of this project, from his identity to his image to his artwork and packaging, suggests grand designs brewing in truly well-kept secret. Shabazz Palaces should be huge; we'll all just have to wait and see how big Butler wants to go.