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 Khan’s “Sweet Thing.” (Bad sound didn’t 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.” It’s 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); she’s 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
Spear’s “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 Mtume’s “Suga Free.” Only
an overlong “Other Side of the Game” flagged. Earthy, funny and unguarded, Badu
braided unabashed black pride and women’s power into transcendent music, and
the all-star bill finally lived up to its staggering promise.

—Ernest Hardy

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 layman’s 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 would’ve 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 night’s highlight, Seattle’s always-baffling, prog-hardcore two-piece
Big Business. The only band comparably pummeling is God’s 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.

—Arlie John Carstens

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