Last Good Sleep
The Big Black/Company Flow parallels just pile up: well-publicized farewell shows; small but fat-free back catalogs full of advanced sonics (wait three years for Co Flow’s Ministry to appear); outspoken leader dedicated to indie economics and sought by major-label artists; sidemen ready to put out B-list albums. Co Flow’s last blast at the Bowery Ballroom on March 28 didn’t feature any jokes about Australians or guitars that sound like table saws, but plenty of folks now are as anxious about Co Flow leader El-P’s next move as they used to be about Albini’s.
The capacity crowd emitted fierce love from the first beat. Warm-up DJ Cucumber Slice (a/k/a Bobbito Garcia) made me feel my age, dropping EPMD and “Purple Haze” to little recognition amid crowd-pleasing tracks from Souls of Mischief and Jeru. (It’s great how new communities reclassify worthy historical blips as seed texts, especially so when five people bought them the first time out.) When Company Flow DJ Mr. Len dropped Organized Konfusion’s “Stress,” El-P was already at the side of the stage, singing along to every word.
The warm-up over, Len dropped the fanfare from last year’s staggering “DPA,” and El-P took the stage with long-departed partner Bigg Jus and the very tall Vast Air of Cannibal Ox (under El-P’s wing for their super-duper crimped and blimped new album, Cold Vein). Flushed with emotion and nerves, El-P was more Hank Rollins than Albini (or Erick Sermon), marching, stomping, jogging, and glaring at the audience (but in a happy way).
As El-P spat, barked, and otherwise projected, the crowd sang along with almost all of the thousands of words broadcast over the p.a. Hits and album tracks both were covered, including El-P’s teenage debut as Company Flow, “Juvenile Technique,” and an atomized, electric breakdown of “Population Control.” Guesting on “The Fire in Which You Burn” and “Weight,” beanpole J-Treds was the night’s only star presence, a rapper dapper snapper in porkpie hat and parka. Too bad he forgot most of his verses.
Deliberately breaking the momentum, El-P pointed out his mom in the balcony and dimmed the lights for “Last Good Sleep,” a song he said he’d never done live. A detailed confessional about his mother’s abuse at the hands of a stepfather, the song could have come off live as hammy manipulation, but it ended up more catharsis than showbiz. By the end of the song, everyone I could see, El-P included, was in tears. Independent as fuck, as El-P declares himself—but his use of the crowd as a springboard for his public exorcism was exactly what you’d expect from the best mainstream performers, from Bruce to PJ to Eminem.
The official show ended with the floor getting fully vertical to “8 Steps to Perfection” and the afterglow continued with every MC in indiedom cramming the stage to freestyle. Population control!, I thought, but fuck that, it was worth everybody’s while to see the Arsonists, Aesop Rock (thank you), What What, Eternia, Copywrite, BMS, and Mr. Lif (so much) get loose over Biggie and Smoothe da Hustler instrumentals.
Internet rappers, backpackers, indie MCs—whatever. This may have been billed as “The Open Casket Show,” but it felt more like a communal bar mitzvah. Mazel tov, kids—it’s yours now. Don’t blow it. —Sasha Frere-Jones
Sweet Birds of Youth
Anita O’Day and Chris Connor, whose combined time behind microphones adds up to well over 100 years, appeared together a few decades back at Michael’s Pub, where they did separate sets, and then teamed nightly for a run-through of “Honeysuckle Rose.” Reunited on a Fez bill last weekend, they again shared the same stage, but not at the same time. Each was up to her old tricks. The savvy they’ve acquired over the course of long careers remains formidable. But tricks are still tricks, and not an entirely satisfying substitute for vocal muscle that age has weakened.
O’Day lost no time reminding the folks in the packed room—many of whom were obviously around for the singer’s palmier days—that it was jazz musicians and not the likes of Jacques Derrida who first came up with the concept of deconstruction. Noting that “I haven’t been working much,” O’Day nonetheless didn’t hesitate to take greater liberties than a privileged sailor.
Never mind that an evergreen like “Let’s Fall in Love” contains the lyric “while we’re young” or Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” refers to the singer’s selling “appetizing young love.” O’Day was only interested in turning melodies into resilient trampolines, as on an astonishing swingy version of the Sigmund Romberg-Oscar Hammerstein II “Lover, Come Back to Me.” (At other times, O’Day’s voice, always smoky, seemed charred, and didn’t land where she aimed it.)
Connor, some years O’Day’s junior, was on surer, if less experimental, ground. She eased nicely into her upbeat numbers, riding Jerome Kern notes for “Dearly Beloved” and the George Gershwin-Dubose Heyward “Summertime” as if she were on an Arabian stallion. But because Connor’s aged-in-wood voice was intact, she was able to negotiate the tougher demands that ballads make. It’s doubtful she could have done either “We’ll Be Together Again” or “As Time Goes By” better or put more power behind them. And when both O’Day and Connor received standing ovations, it wasn’t solely because they’re still standing. —David Finkle