When I first interviewed Ben Haggerty, better known as Macklemore, a little over three years ago, my first call to him was marked by the appearance of his alter ego Raven Bowie, who picked up the phone and hammered out a series of unintelligible words in a heavy British accent. Upon me hanging up and calling back, I was greeted by Macklemore, whose single “Thrift Shop” was going viral at that moment, and we went on to talk about the success of “Same Love,” his gay rights anthem, which became the focal point of my piece.
Watching Haggerty and his producer, Ryan Lewis, sell out Comerica Theatre on a Saturday night in the present day and hearing that same horn intro light up as 5,000 people sang along to “Thrift Shop” was nothing less than a full-circle moment. The duo’s rise, meteoric as it was, has been privy to the highs and lows of any burgeoning artist’s career, facing national lampooning and celebration all within a half-decade.
Saturday night’s crowd at Comerica didn’t give a damn about whatever comments were made after Grammy wins or not. Demographics need not be explained, as a Macklemore crowd is almost exactly what you think it would be, with one unexpected caveat: There was a definite skewing toward baby boomers in my section. Part of Haggerty’s appeal is that commercial ability to draw in a wide range of ages, reminding us that his calls to justice that resonate so strongly with millennials need to be heard in equal measure by ther parents’ crowd as well. Given the reaction by those around me, they heard him loud and clear.
The magic of Comerica Theatre lies in its various strong suits: It’s right off the I-10, the room feels like a big Marquee (sans mezzanine, of course), and the stage is just large enough to be utilized well without an overwrought production. With just a big center riser, three projection screens and LED-lit scaffolding, Haggerty’s live show is engaging without being theatrical. Sound is wonderful in that room — I’ve yet to hear a 5,000-capacity venue that has such even frequency response and solid mixing across the board. Songs like “Otherside,” where the horn and vocal interplay could easily battle with each other, were balanced and clear.
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A standout came in the form of new track “Kevin,” whose story of a young man’s life cut down by painkillers was marked by Haggerty’s exuberant, machine gun delivery, coming on like a firework burst rather than a slow burn. “Same Love” employed a real grand piano and a light production that turned the stage into a stained-glass temple, while a big, humorous intro to “And We Danced” brought my old friend Raven Bowie back to the stage.
And here’s where the paradigm of Macklemore is hard to untangle: He’s one big exercise in dynamics, talking about the dangers of overmedication, the struggle of social rights issues and presenting his dark past on stage for all to see and foiling it against campy songs like “Downtown,” “Thrift Shop” and “And We Danced.” It's the exact same approach as he had to our very first interview, years ago, playing one element off of the other, just played out on a much bigger scale. For critics, the chasm here is too wide, and he’s often criticized for not leaning one way or the other. For Haggerty's and Lewis’ fans, however, this is probably the best approach to get them to listen — that which is bitter goes down easily when accompanied by a bit of sugar. Selling out one of the biggest rooms in Phoenix, on the opening night of their tour, is indicative that everyone’s willing to listen to what Macklemore has to say, especially if the whole thing ends in a dance party.
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Last Night: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis at Comerica Theatre
The Crowd: Scottsdale moms, post-college bros, lots of parents, a grand smattering of of kids and teenagers who screamed when Haggerty swore on stage.
Random Notebook Dump: Dude behind me yelled “I love you, Ben!” Looked like he had just stepped out from a pref event for fraternity rush. You do you, homie.
And We Danced
Brand new track whose title we weren’t told
Can’t Hold Us