Live Review: Raekwon

It takes some effort to undermine a live act with the repertoire of Raekwon. The Button Factory, hosting one of New York’s finest MCs on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, managed it with insulting ease. From start to finish, the organization for this concert was inadequate. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the organization was entirely absent. It was as if several artists had been told to congregate at a given venue at a given time, with no other leads to help them. Where Raekwon performed with marvellous expertise, successively charming and thrilling the crowd, the Button Factory’s management served an astonishingly effective counterpoint.

At the designated opening time, the staff blithely (if a little agitatedly) clustered outside the venue, under several clouds of tobacco smoke, watching on inanely until around 8pm, at which point a severely chilled and lengthy queue was slowly admitted inside. Then, following a long absence of any action, the stage was occupied by an unsuitable warm-up act. I must emphasize that Melodica Deathship, the band in question, do not make bad music; but the duo are a highly eccentric choice for St. Patrick’s Day festivities, and a lunatic choice to share billing with Raekwon. The styles of the two acts are entirely different. Melodica Deathship’s name is enough to reduce endorphine levels; and the sound they produce is determined melancholy. Raekwon’s sound is characterized by lyrically inventive, energetic rhymes that are variously humorous, aggressive, and beautifully illustrative. The kind of minute splicing of soul and funk samples that makes a RZA joint, or the jazzy spine that structures Pete Rock compositions (both producers are frequent Raekwon collaborators) create a sound that is a thousand miles apart from determined melancholy. And hip hop crowds don’t really go for determined melancholy; which is why Melodica Deathship were booed throughout their set. When Raekwon and DJ Symphony finally arrived, they had travelled so swiftly from the airport that they had to bring their bags on stage. If it wasn’t the organizers fault that the main act was late (and I suspect it was), then surely they could have found some other location for the performers’ baggage. Perhaps, they were too busy enjoying Melodica Deathship.

What is most remarkable is that Raewkon (and the excellent DJ Symphony) survived the devastation to reanimate a crowd almost drained of enthusiasm (and in some cases, near-violent aggression). It wasn’t only Raekwon’s clarity of voice that restored the faith, it was his touching, expletive-laden curiosity about St. Patrick chasing all the snakes out of Ireland, his soliloquies about the attractiveness of Irish women, and his irrepressible desire that someone should find him a green Guinness. But above all, it was his setlist, and the bouncing enthusiasm with which he performed classic tracks (from the Wu-Tang Clan, his own solo work, and even, spectacularly, ODB’s ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’), mostly in chronological sequence and with a comedian’s insight. It was a chance to see something rare: a rapper whose delivery is even finer live than on wax. But rarer still, it was a chance to see inimitable talent combined with inspirational stage presence.

Nicholas Bland