The Spin was bummed way out that the Kings of the Mic Tour — with LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Public Enemy and De La Soul — would be passing us by, but that all turned around when Cube announced he'd be making a Music City stop right between KOTM dates. This OG-est of OG MCs has been on our bucket list for ages, so we jumped at the chance to swing by Marathon Music Works Saturday night.
We rolled in just in time to find Chancellor Warhol going hard. As we've come to expect, Chance used every inch of the stage and every tool in his box, including producer Chance Walker, who added live keys and percussion to DJ Crisis' stockpile of fresh beats, and a guest shot by Ducko McFli on the recent duet cut "Palm Trees." Heads nodded, the faithful applauded, and hands waved in the air, but while the smiles confirmed that everyone was digging what the Chancellor had to offer, we could feel something being held back. The crowd, now at about one-third capacity, skewed a little older: These were the folks who had followed Ice Cube from Compton to Hollywood and beyond, and it was clear that they were primed and ready for the main event.
After a few tech checks, the lights cut and a 20-foot LED screen roared to life with the video for "The Big Show," a name-dropping cut from Cube's upcoming album Everythang's Corrupt. As the track wound down, DJ Crazy Toones gave a little hype rap, which proved unnecessary: Once the man of the hour emerged from a fog-machine cloud, the whole room flipped their collective wig. Aided by Westside Connection partner WC, the 90-minute set focused on the post-Friday phase of solo Cube, kicking off with the Dre duet "Natural Born Killaz." Admittedly, these are the years when the OG MC spent more time on film production than records, but the carefully crafted show skimmed the absolute cream of the crop. The theme continued with N.W.A. reunion cut "Hello," from the turn-of-the-millenium War & Peace Vol. 2, WC holding his own on MC Ren's parts. The best rhymes from Aughts albums Laugh Now, Cry Later and Raw Footage were peppered with Westside Connection joints, a "smoke weed every day" shout-out to the late Nate Dogg, and one taste of super-old-school, Cube's verse from "Straight Outta Compton." As the night drew to a close, Cube's sons OMG and Doughboy appeared to help out on cuts from 2010's I Am the West and the long-awaited crowd favorite "It Was a Good Day."
The only thing curiously absent was the title cut from Everythang's Corrupt, which takes aim at contemporary social and economic issues with the same fury and mind-bending lyricism as anything on The Predator. But with work on a new Friday movie and an N.W.A. biopic in the works, we're hoping to see Ice Cube come back around with it, and maybe this time bring the whole crew. Cube said it himself: "You're going to see me at 70 or 75, doin' this shit in Vegas with a mothafuckin' teleprompter." We could do with a little less of the pep-rally crowd-hyping and the LED screen, but go ahead and put our tickets on reserve.
Back when the press releases about AmericanaramA first made the rounds, we were a little surprised by the branding of Bob Dylan's latest package tour. He's as much an Americana prototype as anybody, but he'd seemed pretty ambivalent about being paired up with the Mumfords and the Avetts on the Grammys to make that point. We could only assume His Bobness must be doing things on his own terms with this particular rolling revue. Just for the hell of it, before the show, we scribbled down a list of songs we guessed he might whip out on Sunday night. "Ballad of a Thin Man" made it on our list; "Blowin' in the Wind" definitely didn't. Too earnest and on-the-nose for his 21st century sensibilities, we scoffed. But we'll get to that.
"Good morning, Nashville," My Morning Jacket singer Jim James said, addressing the crowd midway through the band's hour-and-15-minute set. "We are blessed to be among this beautiful community of like-minded souls on this blessed Sunday morning," (or something like that) he continued, introducing the aptly titled "Sweet Jane" homage "Slow Slow Song" — one of a handful of laid-back summery selections from 2011's electro-tinged Southern rock release Circuital, which dominated the set list.
It wasn't morning. In fact, it was just before sundown. We were keenly aware of the time, as we'd planned our evening around getting to The Lawn at Riverfront Park in time to catch timeworn former Grateful Dead co-frontman Bob Weir's solo acoustic set. We missed it, thanks to a blocks-spanning line that snaked from the venue all the way to Third and Lower Broad, peppered with holdout Deadheads of all ages wandering — no pun intended — dead-eyed with raised index fingers, hoping for that miracle donor to toss 'em a ticket. We made it inside just as the Jacket was opening with an über-chill "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)," with James' high, crystal-clear croon soaring over the Nashville skyline.
And speaking of lines, you could have sold out the Ryman a couple times over by the anaconda-and-then-some size of the scattered beer lines alone, a surefire sign not only that this show did rather well attendance-wise, but that organizers should have planned for thirstier revelers. Though sober is no way to soak up a kick-ass pair of Dead covers, that's exactly the shape we were in when MMJ brought Weir back to the stage to lead them through uncannily accurate renditions of "Brown-Eyed Woman" and a thoroughly rockin' "I Know You Rider" that sounded like the Dead on a good night, with Weir, James and MMJ lead slinger Carl Broemel trading licks on a scorching three-guitar jam. Sealing the deal, James has a definite Jerry-like streak of vulnerability to his timbre, something we'd never realized until hearing him harmonize with Weir.
Weir also joined Wilco for two songs during their AmericanaramA set, the first of which — a fittingly loose, shaky "Bird Song" — creeped to a start with a very, ahem, jerry-built beginning and, like Weir's MMJ jam sesh, sounded authentically Dead, albeit a bit more circa '95 vintage than '77. What followed, however — a heady, hard-charging cover of The Beatles' psych-rock template "Tomorrow Never Knows" — kicked ass in a way Wilco hasn't kicked ass in a good decade or so. To our pleasant surprise, Bob Weir was the hero of the show, much to the delight of crowd-dominating Deadheads and hippie Dylan fans. The rest of Wilco's set stuck pretty closely to the template they've been using for the past couple years, winding from the laid-back, appropriately dusty and wistful folk of Mermaid Avenue to lengthy The Whole Love opener "Art of Almost" and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot faves like "Jesus Etc." "If you think this is boring, just wait until Dylan," we overheard one apparent MMJ fan say to his pal as guitarist Nels Cline blew through another solo. Compared to My Morning Jacket's volume, Wilco's was very literally quiet and subdued, lulling more than one ancient hippie to sleep on blankets that were sprinkled throughout the crowd as night fell.
We had no trouble working our way up close enough to the stage to be able to tell that the guys in Dylan's band were sporting bolo ties; but even up there, we could only make out about every third line he sang. He reserves the right to mess around with his revered and referenced catalog, and most especially, to mess around with anybody expecting to hear the oldies done the old way. Working a vaguely Colonel Sanders-esque look, Dylan played the part of the fantastically elusive entertainer, wizened, wolfish, witty and wily, chewing up his lyrics and melodies and spitting out anything-but-straight, vaudevillian, sing-scatting vamps.
Dylan's band of pros bee-lined through country-rock shuffles, country-soul balladry, jazzy jump blues, sinewy boogies and throwback pop, getting a handful of couples swing-dancing down front. But to make sure we were hearing what we thought we were hearing — re-imagined as it was — took a bit of live lyric Googling on the ol' smartphone. Just under half the set came from Blood on the Tracks and earlier albums, and the rest was at least as recent as 1997's Time Out of Mind, with several songs from last year's darkly funny Tempest. When Dylan came back for his one-song encore, he proved us just as wrong as anybody else who's ever tried to predict his next move. He brought out all four McCrary Sisters — Regina McCrary sang with him circa Slow Train Comin' — for an un-folky, loose-limbed romp through "Blowin' in the Wind." Damn right he's the freewheelin' Bob Dylan.