Saul Williams‘s “Niggy Tardust Experience” tour made a stop at the Varsity last Sunday, in a jam-packed roster of musicians from the Afro-Punk collective. The spoken word artist is touring in support of his 2007 album The Inevitable Rise and Fall of Niggy Tardust, for which he worked closely with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. The tour is a sampler of acts affiliated with Afro-Punk, a movement seeking to break black musicians out of the stereotypes the industry has placed on them. Such an ambitious cause is sure to find mixed results, as was the case with a skeptical predominantly white Midwest crowd, who didn’t seem to understand what was going on for most of the night.
Local band Dearling Physique started off the night right, giving the crowd far more spectacle and energy than the average warm-up act. Their sound is a fantastic mix of Joy Division and Nine Inch Nails, tying neatly with the sound of Saul Williams’s latest record by a happy accident. Frontman Dominique Davis harbors vocals like Ian Drury, but pops onstage, with moves that recall performance art and tribal dance, though remain alien to the norm. Towards the end of the set, Davis wore a white bird mask while the band gained momentum, holding the mask for a while as he sang, adding to the bag of tricks under his sleeve that make him one of the area’s finest in showmanship.
Three-piece hip-hop band No Bird Sing, also local, played next, providing a crowd of fans their favorite set of the night, early on in the show. The setup isn’t unlike that of the Roots with its blend of hip-hop and rock, but deserves a comparison to Rage Against the Machine for the band’s capabilities to play to sufficiently match emcee Eric Blair teetering up and down in momentum throughout the set. The floor wasn’t as packed any other time in the night, which resulted a fine call-and-response of screaming fans at the end of one song. No Bird Sing introduced new tracks “Devil Trombones” and “Ars Poetica” near the end, giving a shout-out to The Current and encouraging fans to request their music from the station.
All energy was lost with American Fangs, one of the mainstays of the tour. The band was power punk, offering little to a crowd desiring a steady supply of cutting edge hip hop bands, and more suitable for one of Warped Tour’s smaller stages. Afro-Punk, on the other hand, loves the band, and appeared to be the only ones rocking out at the show, back at the merchandise booth. This makes sense only considering that American Fangs are going against the grain of what the mainstream expects of multicultural musicians, in that at least the singer doesn’t fit the pop punk band cookie cutter model. As if this band weren’t unsatisfying enough, two huge light boxes shone onstage as they played, blinding the sparse crowd respectfully taking in the show.
CX KiDTRONIK and Tchaka Diallo, aka Krak Attack, warmed the stage for Saul Williams, delivering many of the same hijinks present last year when they opened for Girl Talk at First Avenue. Krak Attack proved they’re equal-opportunity male pigs with “Big Girl Skinny Girl,” which appeared to turn off a crowd seeking refuge from radio rap. The duo performed their take on Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” which only shares the same title and beginning lyric, replaced at the end with, “we’re here today to get through this thing called Krak.” Ironically enough, this was the crowd’s sentiment.
Saul Williams nearly paid homage to Minneapolis in his appearance, looking like a dancing joker from Prince’s “Batdance,” sporting a green haphazard mohawk and purple clothing, fitting for the quick shift taken on Niggy Tardust. Predictably, Williams mostly performed material from his latest record. Highlights of the set include “Tr(n)igger,” shaking the house with a powerful Public Enemy sample, and “NiggyTardust,” whose chorus line, “when I say ‘Niggy,’ you say nothing” was bound to be humorous when performed in front of a audience aching to participate. The collaboration with Trent Reznor was appropriate, as the two musicians’ artistic goals perfectly complement one another. Snippets of Reznor’s finest factory beats and treble-heavy Pretty Hate Machine turn to gold with the aid of Saul Williams’ Niggy Tardust, a concept album about the liberation of the black man, and of the transformation that occurs. It was certainly a treat for a fan of Nine Inch Nails and hip-hop, and anyone understanding the brilliance of the collaboration would’ve been blown away.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with the crowd on Sunday. In one instance, an audience member appeared to heckle Williams by calling out “Backstreet Boys!” after Williams asked the crowd what they wanted to hear. Such a lack of energy in the crowd left me wondering if they had even listened to the new album, and why they were even there. Despite putting on a nearly solid roster of talent, Saul Williams couldn’t deliver the audience what they wanted, and its was painful to hear the musician say, “was I raised to be lowered?” No, blame it on the Midwest. Apparently the majority—even the fans—just don’t get it yet.