SUGAR WATER FESTIVAL at the Greek, August 9 The Sugar Water Festival is firmly rooted in Afrocentric, womanist pride and politics, a fact that was underlined when its three A-list divas Queen Latifah, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu took the stage singing the Jones Girls disco-soul classic Nights Over Egypt. This tour which is planned to be a yearly event is so much more than Lilith Fair in blackface. Despite an enthusiastic kickoff, openers Floetry only clicked with the audience during an old-school hip-hop medley (including the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme) and a cover of Rufus & Chaka Khans Sweet Thing. (Bad sound didnt help their cause.) Queen Latifah rocked Ladies First, and for a moment it seemed the night had been jump-started. Exuberant and charming, she alternated old hits with tracks from her covers album, The Dana Owens Album. But while the ragga-chanting-rapping of her early work (even the corny U.N.I.T.Y.) landed and stuck, her later material, though pleasant, was vaporous, her voice lacking emotional grit. Ebullient crowd-favorite Jill Scott was amazing vocally Broadway meets the Apollo on songs such as A Long Walk, He Loves Me and Gettin In the Way. Its clear, however, that her bag of tricks has been shaken empty. She once seemed the mistress of quotidian detail, poetess of everyday life struggles. But repetition of themes has rendered her one-note (albeit a glorious-sounding note); shes a motivational speaker who sets her shit to music. Taking the stage in fitted skirt and jacket (sans blouse), and flossing her head wrap like an exclamation point, Erykah Badu kicked off her set with an a cappella snippet from Burning Spears Jah No Dead then launched into a conjoined On & On and .?.?. & On that, within five minutes, dwarfed everything that had come before. Here it was, at last: art, poetry, politics. Her Woo wove in the Mary Jane Girls All Night Long, while Back in the Day dipped into Mtumes Suga Free. Only an overlong Other Side of the Game flagged. Earthy, funny and unguarded, Badu braided unabashed black pride and womens power into transcendent music, and the all-star bill finally lived up to its staggering promise.
PELICAN, BIG BUSINESS, RED SPAROWES at the Knitting Factory, August 10 Over the last 25 years metal has fractured into some 64 subgenres, each a bit more extreme or homage-obsessed than the last. Trying to keep up gets real nitpicky, so in this laymans book there really are only two camps: the candy-ass bands that go well with pole-dancing and beer commercials, or the epic, ass-kicking, even artsy kind those equally capable of making rabid Hessians lose their shit or stand stone-still in blissed-out wonder (like, say, Slayer). If your bag were the latter, then you likely wouldve enjoyed this night of massive, ominous riffs, blast beats and stomach-rumbling bass lines from three of Hydra Head Records finest heavy bands. Featuring a three-guitar attack and inclusion of such uncommon elements as ebow, pedal steel and shakers, the evening began with a much-anticipated set from the Isis side project Red Sparowes. Against a backdrop of films flickering ghostly cityscapes, they delivered an exciting collection of metalized instrumentals caught somewhere between Ennio Morricone and a kinder/gentler Neurosis. Next came the nights highlight, Seattles always-baffling, prog-hardcore two-piece Big Business. The only band comparably pummeling is Gods own Melvins. (Rumor has it Buzzo and Crover are tapping Big Biz to join in on the next Melvins outing, which ought to tell you something about how fucking amazing these guys are.) The headliner, Illinois ambient instrumetal act Pelican, was crushing but not as awe-inspiring as hoped. Where the 2003 debut, Australasia, was a genuine masterpiece of emotion and staggeringly loud, prog-metal innovation, songs from the new sophomore effort are occasionally overly long and, at times, achingly predictable. Nonetheless, between the three, all favorite bases were covered: epic, ass-kicking and, yes, even artsy.
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Arlie John Carstens