Expectations can pollute an experience, but you'd assume a Saul Williams show would incorporate spoken word, hip-hop, and theater, the trifecta the New York rapper is known for. In this regard, Williams did not disappoint when he performed at Club Red on a Tuesday night in Mesa. In other areas, well, let's just say there was something to be desired.
The first performer of the night, Haleek Maul, brought an upbeat message with plenty of chilling Old Testament references that made me wonder if this kid had a good experience growing up in church. Something tells me not. But I could totally get down with his vibes. Money is the worst invention, Maul preached, and you don't need no validation. I've got to give the kid props when the stage blew a fuse, cutting everything, and he kept rapping anyway. That shows dedication. When the power came back, he drew far better responses from the crowd as well.
Next was Sons of an Illustrious Father, which is an indie rock three-piece. This band is notable for having Ezra Miller, the boy from The Perks Of Being A Wallflower and We Need To Talk About Kevin, as their drummer. Musically, nothing else stood out. Maybe an indie New York band that sings songs about being "crazy in love" just wasn't the right mood this show needed. I can't say it was bad, I just couldn't get into it.
I guess the crowd felt the same way, not getting into it, not getting into the earlier act, but then they weren't even getting into Saul Williams.
The moment Saul Williams stepped out, he hopped into the crowd, already spitting poetry. I didn't recognize his first song, so I assumed it's from his upcoming album Martyr Loser King. In fact, I don't believe I recognized any of Saul's songs from the night and I would consider myself obsessively familiar with his discography*.
(*Except Volcanic Sunlight, which was just OK, in my opinion, but it's been a long time since I've spun that one.)
Saul seemed to be purely playing new stuff, which was exciting. The heavy piano riffs on one song and Saul blasting lyrics about being "high on the Internet" on another make me very eager to hear this new record. It seems as politically charged as his earlier works, equally eloquent and modernly conscious, dealing with police brutality and Burundi, both of which are in the media often, especially this week it seems.
But this crowd was mute. Speechless, maybe. I can't even attempt to transcribe the impactful verses that Saul offered, so maybe that explains why things were so tame. Everyone was just shocked. Also, it was a Tuesday night. Maybe Mesa is that lame during the week. Then again, maybe if Saul was playing more readily recognizable songs like "Convict Colony" or "Telegram," at least to get people started, more folks would be interested.
Yet in the end, no shade can be cast on Saul. The moderate amount of people at this gig should have shown a lot more enthusiasm.
Saul did include more bits, including being joined by Sons of an Illustrious Father and Haleek for a song or two. Then came the theater, in which the Sons dressed up like cops, wrapped Saul up in an extension cord and took him offstage.
Then, the lights came up. No one cheered or demanded an encore or even chanted the guy's name. So the show ended.
That was it? The entire set was maybe 40 minutes. Did Saul give up because people were acting bored and so cut his set early? I have no idea. I stood there, feeling somewhat shocked, until I asked a security guard if that was really it. Yep.
What other word would describe this but "disappointing"? Let's be clear that I'm not mad Saul didn't play my favorite song or something. Hoping to come to this event to hear some truth spoken to power or see heads nodding to sick beats, I instead saw a bunch of people too scared to even raise their hands or chant along. And that's pretty unfortunate.
Last Night: Saul Williams, Sons of an Illustrious Father, Haleek Maul at Club Red 4/28/15
The Crowd: A diverse group of bored, tired, whatever people who had no problem taking out their phones to snap pictures of Saul but for some reason had trouble dancing or singing along.
Personal Bias: This is why we can't have nice things, Phoenix.
Troy Farah is on Twitter.
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