Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Kanye West @ Nokia Theater

Going to a lot of shows, you encounter a lot of bands who seem to have a real problem with doing what the audience expects. To some extent, you've got to withhold and space out your big songs, but a lot of times you'll hear people playing their hits like it's a chore. It's understandable considering how many times they've probably played the song, but at the same time, you're making a living playing your music and ultimately what you are is an entertainer. Kanye definitely understands this, putting on a really up tempo live show that overcame the issues with live rap performance by just constantly giving you something new and interesting.

The setup was similar to the one used by Gnarls Barkley, a string section, backup singers, though in this case a DJ replaced the keyboards and drums of Gnarls. And, in the center of it all Kanye. The set looked vaguely ancient Greek, white with purple curtains and a bunch of TVs that looked like picture frames, but broadcast live footage. The string section had cool looking makeup, a stripe of red over the eyes that made them look like Pris from Blade Runner.

He came out with 'Diamonds From Sierra Leone,' which made great use of the string section and got a lot of crowd energy right from the start. He then segued into 'All Falls Down,' which kept the crowd going. He was pretty hyper at the beginning, running around the stage, speeding through the verses. But, it worked because the crowd was really into it, a lot of diamonds were in the air for the opener and the crowd seemed to know the lyrics for every song. Hearing all these songs back to back, it was amazing how good every one of Kanye's solo songs are. I was excited to hear practically every song he brought out.

From there, he went into my favorite of his songs, 'Kanye's Workout Plan,' which is notable mainly for the vocoder breakdown, which wasn't much different live than on the album. Short of actually breaking out a live vocoder, that's the kind of song that doesn't gain much live. Rap is generally considered to be inferior live to rock, and I would generally agree. Especially for smaller artists, what you get is basically the guy rapping over the record, which isn't much more exciting than just listening to the album. However, the string section and live singing, plus dynamic DJing made this more than the album. Plus, particularly with this crowd, a lot of the coolness of the show came from the crowd's enthusiastic reaction to everything that went on. Anyway, the 'Workout Plan' closed out with a snippet of 'Sweet Dreams are Made of This,' a track I always enjoy, a nice bonus.

Shortly after this, John Legend came out and did a solo song, 'Ordinary People.' It was alright, probably the kind of thing that goes over better on record than live. After the high energy performance Kanye did, the laid back piano of Legend was a bit lacking. However, they did a nice version of 'Heard 'Em Say' after, with Legend on the piano. After this, Common came out and they did a great version of 'Get 'Em High.' They did another song that was really familiar, but I don't actually know what it is. Anyway, the guest appearance was solid.

After this, Kanye did a segment where he played excerpts from songs he'd produced. This was another of those rap show only moments, where Kanye would just do the vocals on 'H to the Izzo,' and it went over huge with the crowd. Unlike a rock band doing a cover, he was able to bring out the exact recording of the original song, but it felt weird for him to get a big crowd reaction with a song Jay-Z did. However, he did produce it, so I suppose he earned it.

This sequence ended with Kanye playing 'Drop it Like It's Hot,' and a guest appearance by Pharrell. I love Pharrell's producing work and his two albums with N.E.R.D, but the tracks I've heard from his solo album have been generally uninspiring and he lacked Kanye's live presence. They did a long version of 'Can I Have It Like That,' which was mostly interesting for the crowd's enthusiastic reaction to Pharrell. Eventually they did 'Number One,' which is another track that doesn't live up to either artist's previous work. In terms of Pharrell's future, I'd like to see another N.E.R.D album, both "In Search Of" and "Fly or Die" are fantastic.

After Pharrell left, Kanye did more solo tracks, a string of massive hits. 'Jesus Walks' was great, the best use of the string section all night. Then he did 'Spaceship,' which I was happy to hear, it's one of his best tracks. 'Golddigger' was in there as well, punctuated by the most memorable quote of the night from Kanye: "White people, this is your one opportunity to use the word nigga." 'Through the Wire' was cool too, around this point Kanye said he was happy just to get the chance to share this music with people, normally you'd think that's just a line, but he really seemed to enjoy himself, and the songs still felt fresh despite the fact that he's performed them countless times.

Things closed out with 'Touch the Sky,' and then an abrupt conclusion, no encore. I actually like that there was no encore, it's always annoying to wait for the band to come back, just do all your stuff then get going. I'd have loved to hear 'Roses' or 'Drive Slow,' but all of the solo Kanye stuff was great. Hearing his songs against some of the other artists' tracks, it was really apparent just how good Kanye's stuff is. Every song ignited the crowd and was a lot of fun to hear.

So, this was a great show. It had just as much energy as any rock show and it was great to get to hear such a high profile artist in a small venue. There was just so much crowd energy going back at him, I totally got caught up in the show. Very cool. That said, I'd still be curious to see how Kanye went over on the dates he opened for U2 back in the fall. I'm not sure how those two audiences would have mixed.

Related Posts
On Music (1/19/2005)
In the Mix: January 2006 (1/11/2006)

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