Sunday night, The Spin attended War Memorial's first hip-hop show in recent memory, with current chart-topping L.A. wunderkind Kendrick Lamar. It was an evening of stellar vibes and stellar performances, and our beloved rap music was presented as the fine art form that we've always claimed. Bringing hip-hop to a new room can be a delicate, inherently complicated affair, fraught with potential disasters and all sorts of weird socio-cultural baggage — but you never would have known that in War Memorial Sunday evening. Well, it never really got heated or anything, but outside the venue you might have noticed talk that was along the lines of, "Seriously, this is where the show is? Damn, this fancy."
As we walked up the steps of Legislative Plaza, the light of the city reflected off the marble, and swarms of Nashville's underground hip-hop community made their way through WMA's pillars and into the show. It was like those of us who had stuck with the art during the more marginalized days had graduated from the club scene to something bigger, grander, more important — yes, it was just one show on a Sunday night, but it felt like the culmination of years of beats, sweat and tears. And that's before we even walked in the door — which, mind you, was a painless, hassle-free process. Dealing with security at a hip-hop show isn't always a copacetic situation — things can get antagonistic on both sides — but Sunday was a great example of how well things work when everybody starts from a position of respect.
And the music! Our only complaint is that Chancellor Warhol could have used a longer set. If The Spin hadn't been uncharacteristically punctual, we would have missed all 15 minutes of it. Also, DJ Crisis could have played more tracks from local MC Starlito, but The Spin always wants to hear more 'Lito, so we don't know if that really counts as a complaint. It did take a while for the sound guys to dial in the room — it was not designed with hip-hop-friendly acoustics in mind — and Chance didn't benefit from the learning curve. But he did put on a strong if truncated set, and it was nice to see him up on the big stage. Also, it was nice to hear DJ Crisis drop some local tracks on the big system, and nice to see local kids recognize said local tracks.
And Lamar is awesome, and everybody who wasn't there Sunday night but buys a ticket to see his pretty-much-inevitable headlining show at Bridgestone at some point in the future is a total chode. The chances of that dude playing venues the size of War Memorial for much longer are slim — he's one of the most natural and enthralling performers in contemporary music. The production was minimal — just plain old lights, no lasers or LED walls or any of the things that artists with a little bit of buzz and some radio support are virtually required to bring out with them these days. Lamar was just wearing black pants and a maroon hoodie — there was no real flash or glamour or artifice, just a guy with a mic, moving a crowd.
It seemed a bit bizarre that the crowd didn't care about new tracks like "Swimming Pools (Drank)" and "The Recipe" so much. We're talking about "the hits," the songs that helped Lamar land in the Billboard Top 10, the songs that would be the only reasons most audiences show up. But this crowd was having none of that. They wanted tunes from Overly Dedicated and Section 80, and when they got what they wanted, there was no reason Lamar even needed a mic. There were a lot of beautiful moments of crowd interaction — lots of hand-shaking and leaning low into the crowd — and moments of really subtle choreography (He sat down! On a chair!) that made it feel like we were watching a truly classic artist from another place and time. If the hype is correct and Kendrick Lamar is in fact the future of hip-hop, then the art form is in expert hands.
Gil again, for the first time
"For me, that was like seeing Paul McCartney," said a friend in the lobby of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center Monday night after Gilberto Gil's dazzling set. "Wha? Who?" you say, and the Schermerhorn's empty upper tiers testified to what a tough sell the show must have been — even for a musical figure who arrives bearing a catalog the heft of Macca's, charisma to rival Prince's, a multi-generational populist following worthy of The Boss and political standing unmatched by any pop star in this country.
It's not often in Music City you see a conga line human-centipeding through the Schermerhorn's narrow rows under a canopy of outstretched arms; it's even rarer that you hear several hundred Nashvillians singing call-and-response in Portuguese. And so a case can be made that a turnout that might've looked dire for, say, Al Jarreau was actually impressive for an artist whose name recognition among the city at large probably ranks somewhere between a replacement Titan and a fourth-party presidential contender. Precisely for that reason, the city owes a debt of thanks and season subscriptions to the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and the Schermerhorn for the first Nashville appearance by Gil — one of the founding fathers of modern-day Brazilian pop music. His torrid just-short-of-two-hour set was the best kind of music-history lesson: one you can dance to.
Drawing from a five-decade career, Gil may have one-upped McCartney in one regard: It's hard to imagine Beatle Paul starting a concert with a relatively new song — in Gil's case, the title track from his 2010 release Fé na Festa — and getting rewarded with handclaps in time and an immediate sing-along. The 70-year-old Gil, lithe and trim in a white T-shirt and jeans, made his entrance with a red guitar slung across his hips, coaxing from it a scratchy, sexy, teasing rhythmic riff. He immediately established a rapport with his six-piece band, including percussionist Gustavo di Dalva and drummer Jorge Gomes, each surrounded on a separate riser by an array of percussion instruments.
Right up front, Gil cautioned his audience that they were in for something "different from folk pop and bossa nova samba," the sound most Americans associate with Brazil. That something included baião and forró, the dance music of Brazil's Northeast, raffish and hot where bossa nova is languid and cool. A stew of European and Latin American influences — one song sounded uncannily like a Balkan reggae band in an Argentine tango bar — it's music meant to loosen hips and lower inhibitions. Fans squirmed in their seats for seven songs until maestro Gil summoned them to their feet with a wave, at which point the aisles filled with undulating bodies.
At times the ensemble made such a dense, roiling, polyrhythmic racket that we wondered whether Gil might be augmenting his group with pre-recorded tracks. Best we could tell, the sound onstage all came from Gil's dexterous septet, with bassist Arthur Maia supplying loping runs and lead guitarist Sergio Chiavazzoli switching off to a percussively plunked banjo that evoked the jazzy excursions of Nashville's own Béla Fleck. The set seemed structured to guide the audience through the many influences on and by Brazilian music, which Gil termed "a whole family of different members." The centerpiece was a two-song Bob Marley tribute, highlighted by a gorgeous "Three Little Birds" that came off like a cross between a Cajun reel and a lilting lullaby.
Between songs, Gil — not coincidentally Brazil's former minister of culture — served as both ambassador and professor, explaining how, for example, the Portuguese royal family's flight from Napoleon was directly responsible for the introduction of European forms such as the mazurka and the schottische into Brazil's indigenous dance and folk musics. He may not have the official title anymore, but he hasn't forsaken the role of cultural evangelist: Among other things, he used his podium to school Nashvillians in the significance of the late king of baião, the great accordionist Luiz Gonzaga.
Gil cut such a lusty, joyous figure that he made his between-song entreaties sound more like sharing than teaching. Showing off dance steps that ranged from coquettish to Cosby-esque, Gil beamed as he criss-crossed the stage. By night's end, wrapping himself in an audience member's Brazilian flag, he capped what looked like a variation on James Brown's good foot by pogoing on the apron. That's to say nothing of his hypnotic rhythm-guitar work, his fingers a spider-walking blur up and down the fretboard. And he reveled in the hold that anthems such as "Andar com Fe" and "Expresso 2222" had over an audience in the cradle of country music, conducting the kind of mass sing-alongs you'd expect from Springsteen at Bridgestone.
Gil finished with a three-song encore, including an acoustic English-language rendition of one of his loveliest ballads, "Refavenza." In the lobby, breathless fans were floating hopes of someday seeing Gil's contemporaries Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze, Jorge Ben or Joao Gilberto; one can only keep fingers crossed that this triumph received a warm enough reception to encourage the Schermerhorn and the NSO to take a chance on other figures of Gilberto Gil's stature.