If you looked closely amongst the crooked caps, you could discern a fair amount of single women who ventured out on a Friday night to witness the lyrical dynamism of Aesop Rock. Growing up in an era where the only girls in the audience at a non-Atmosphere indie rap show had likely been dragged there by their significant others, it was refreshing to see more gender diversity gazing down from the balcony of the sold-out Irving Plaza.
Fake Four Inc. was in the building by way of Pacific Northwest emcee Onry Ozzborn and Zavala, the duo better known as Dark Time Sunshine. Last month saw the release of their sophomore album ANX, which exceeded the lofty expectations set up by the critical success of their psych-rap opus Vessel. Chicago beatsmith Zavala is on such another plane with production these days that Onry could step into a vocal booth, mumble something incoherently about Pop Tarts, and DTS would still have a banger on their hands. Thankfully Onry is a first-rate spitter, weaving styles and witty one-liners into a rich potpourri of sound. He began the group’s opening set with “Overlordian” which melted neatly into the bubbly and inviting “Now They Know.” Zavala’s next level synths and heavy drums rang out on “Valiant,” a Child Actor-assisted winner from the new record. Dim red lights shone over the pair as “Shewolf,” from theBelieveyoume EP that preceded both full-lengths, engulfed the speakers before transitioning into “Never Cry Wolf” off of ANX.
Hats off to the soundman for containing the uber drums on tracks like “Look At What The Cat Did,” spilling out while Zavala got busy behind the boards with a lo-fi projection of the album artwork looming over his shoulders. Frontman Onry is a reluctant star of sorts, with one hand in his pocket and the other directing a sea of waving patron hands like a conductor, perhaps unaware of just how bright his vocal cords are shining of late. Sporting an LMNO shirt, Jordans, and a red beanie ideally suited for New York in August, the emcee moved around minimally on stage and let his music do the talking. Under Zavala’s wardrobe, it howled.
A beat intermission followed DTS courtesy of San Francisco-based Edison with his 256 button, non-looping handiwork displayed on the projection screen along with some trippy, irreverent visuals. At one point, Edison let an audience member name an untitled song, and the unfortunate youngster went with “Fucking Awesome,” which drew a sturdy (and warranted) round of boos. Not everyone has the knack for song-naming, particularly difficult in the realm of instrumental music, that Edison does. Circular green light patterns book-ended the DJ as he flipped a simple guitar sample into something pulsing and immediate on “The Poetry Of Public Transportation.”
The head-nodding rhythms of “We Don’t Make Anything Here Anymore” entered the fray as medicinal contrails rose toward the ceiling. DJ Big Wiz supplied cuts for Edison’s finale and nominee for song title of the decade, “Talking About Art Is Like Puking About Food.” Edison’s set, which married RJD2’s melodic penchant with the spastic compulsions of Egadz, cleansed the palate for a Long Island-born lyricist who had all five boroughs converging on the Union Square venue.
Since the release of his last record, None Shall Pass, Aesop Rock moved from NYC to San Francisco and underwent a string of tragedies well-documented on his new album Skelethon. “Postcards from the pink bath paint leisure / As a cloaked horse through a stained-glass Saint Peter / Hack faith healer, cheat death to the very end / Cherry wooden nickels on his specs for the ferryman,” Aesop relayed to open the evening under themes of isolation and Greek mythology-draped mortality confrontation. These intricately-penned, pained diagrams from “Leisureforce” were juxtaposed with footage of a cat roaming and playing through grassy fields. Animals continued to figure into the set as a driving synth and Murs sample ushered in the graveyard party of “Crows 2.” The aforementioned cat was then laid to rest on “Homemade Mummy,” with Hail Mary Mallon partner-in-abstraction Rob Sonic assisting Aesop and hundreds of fans on the “Take the brain out! Leave the heart in!” refrain. Spectacular levels of crowd participation resumed on latest singles “Zero Dark Thirty” and “ZZZ Top,” with Aesop bathed in oscillating purple and green lights.
The headliner played for about an hour and a half and drew a frenzied hometown crowd to a boiling point in the way Bruce Springsteen does when he plays a show in Jersey. Though fans clearly favored solo material over Hail Mary Mallon cuts, they remained enthusiastic for the cinematic backdrop of “Smock” and back-and-forth wordplay of “Grubstake.”
Crowd participation took on new meaning when the Dark Time Sunshine barber shop emerged center stage. “Racing Stripes,” Aesop’s ode to the late great Camu Tao, tells a story of how Camu fueled his productivity by giving himself purposely awful haircuts which inspired him to stay inside and make music. For each show on the Skelethon Tour, a fan was selected to hit the stage and submit his scalp to the whims of Zavala and Onry while Aesop dove into “Racing Stripes.” At Irving Plaza, Zavala turned young Graham Wood’s hair into something resembling the San Diego Padres friar mascot, before Onry put on some truly terrible finishing touches.
Each song of Aesop’s set was paired fittingly with images on the big screen, such as the Evel Knievel archival footage flashing across while the rapper tore through “Cycles To Gehenna.” The piano breakdown on the Hunter S. Thompson-channeling track allowed Aesop’s spine-tingling lyricism to ride unencumbered. “It was less of an act of hubris / More a lonely hearts club at the helm of a magic bullet,” Aesop spoke to a packed and attentive house. Aesop powered through more Skelethon material, such as the brilliantly-dark “Gopher Guts,” before wrapping up the night with a few classics. The double-time chorus of “Big Bang,” amazingly 12 years old at this juncture, was a treat for die-hard, catalogue-celebrating fans. “Nightlight” flowed from there until the beat flipped midway through to “Daylight,” which closed Aesop’s void-jousting set with a life-affirming sing-along. Wiz clipped the beat at the tail end while Aesop provided the beatbox for legions of followers. “All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day / Put the pieces back together my way,” they belted out in unison, their voices reverberating down congested Irving Place.
(Late review. IT issues with DailySpots relaunch. Blah blah blah.)