This is why I should never take pictures
January 17, 2008
The crowd of hangers-on standing at the back of the Hammerstein Ballroom stage last night had to number in the triple-digits. From the looks of things, that crowd was enough to fill up, say, Mercury Lounge just by itself. I wondered how many Wu-Tang Killa Bees were among them, how many members of American Cream Team or Killarmy or Hillside Scramblers. A decade or so ago, the Wu-Tang name was still strong enough to support a thriving micro-economy of second-string rappers. These days, it’s barely strong enough to support itself. After last year’s free-flowing internal acrimony and the floptacular sales of 8 Diagrams (still a masterpiece, I don’t give a fuck what Raekwon says), the group is touring as a sort of makeshift unit, without RZA. And without RZA, it’s not even certain whether the group can legally use the Wu-Tang name or not. U-God, meanwhile, is suing Wu Music Group, the company run by RZA and his brother Divine, over unpaid royalties and show money. But despite the constant instability, or maybe because of it, the remaining eight members (Cappadonna included) worked as a functional unit onstage last night, never showing any obvious indication that things in the Wu-Tang universe were not as they should be. As recently as three years ago, Wu-Tang could still fill a New York arena. Now they’re relegated to Hammerstein Ballroom, a decent-sized venue in the shadow of Madison Square Garden. The first of the crew’s two Hammerstein shows sold out, but last night the entire top-tier balcony was empty. And 8 Diagrams was only invoked when the group told us to buy it and when the crowd was filing out, “Take It Back” playing over the PA system.
As much as I love 8 Diagrams, none of that album’s tracks would’ve worked in last night’s show. Rae’s big problem with the album is that it’s not the punch-you-in-your-face music that the group once perfected, but it’s hard to imagine the group recapturing the out-of-nowhere erratic energy of its first wave of albums even without RZA’s Lee Hazlewood fixation; they’re older now, after all. Still, punch-you-in-your-face music runs Wu’s live show, with good reason. As the group took the stage, the gutpunch drums and eerie singsong coos of “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit” were still potent enough to cause a near-riot among the hugely white, tough-guy intensive crowd. (Seriously, it looked like a Sick of It All show.) Up in my third-floor opera-box seat, the sound was all rushing bedlam: voices screaming over each other, crowd maintaining a constant chattering roar, beats barely audible but for the drums. Still, this was exciting stuff: a cathartic mass shoutalong of a bunch of songs that now feel like they come from a lifetime ago. Last night’s set list barely dipped into the crew’s post-98 catalog, but it still found room for something like thirty tracks: sometimes just a verse, sometimes just a chorus, sometimes the whole thing.
The gruffly unstable atmosphere at last night’s show couldn’t have been more different from the last show I saw at that venue, Jay-Z’s ritzy live-band extravaganza. In fact, it was closer to the other show I saw at Hammerstein last year: Slayer. Still, like Jay, Wu had a few special guests. During “Da Rockwilder,” Redman showed up to bellow a verse before disappearing back into the back-of-stage. And as the show was ending, Raekwon and Method Man pointed out a few luminaries onstage with them, making for a truly random onslaught of celebrity cameos. (Diddy! Tracy Morgan! Petey Pablo!) But the guest that stuck with me was ODB’s mother, who appeared onstage three quarters of the way through the show, bringing with her a few of ODB’s other female relatives. (His sisters, maybe? I couldn’t make out what Meth was saying when he introduced them.) And maybe the Germans have a word for it: the smile you get when you’re standing on a stage in front of a few thousand white people and your dead son’s rap group is performing his song celebrating unprotected sex, passing you a mic so you can sing along. She looked a little embarrassed and a little heartbroken, but she also looked truly, glowingly proud. For the rest of the show, Dirty’s family stood at center-stage, like bizarro-world S1Ws.
Without the RZA onstage with them, the crew was without a clear leader, and so Method Man stepped into the role. Meth was usually somewhere near front-center last night, and he was definitely the only guy in the group who kept moving (dancing on the barricade, executing a perfect front-flip stagedive, making me proud when he scolded the crowd for not being more like Baltimore). But he didn’t play frontman so much as some weird coach/cheerleader hybrid. When someone else was rapping, he’d stand beside the guy, egging him on. When someone’s mic sounded shitty (most of the time), he’d run around looking for a better mic, then toss it to whoever needed it. (The substitute mic always sounded exactly the same, but he got points for effort.) Everyone else in the group was content to play the background, even Ghostface, a total livewire at his solo shows. Still, this was as polished as I could possibly expect a Wu-Tang show to be. The last time I saw the group together onstage was almost twelve years ago, at Lollapolooza 96. That was a deeply unsatisfying experience: stuck on the bill between the Ramones and Soundgarden, the Wu set was a total garbled mess. This one certainly had moments of garbled messiness, but there was nothing perfunctory about it. Basking in the love of a die-hard hometown crowd, every last member looked amped to still be able to command this sort of devotion. If they can hold it together internally, Wu-Tang will be able to survive on the touring circuit for decades, keeping crowds like this one happy. I can think of worse fates.
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on the Wu-Tang Clan’s 8 Diagrams
Voice feature: Tom Breihan on the Wu-Tang Clan
Voice review: Kelefa Sanneh on the Wu-Tang Clan’s The W
Voice review: Joe Levy on the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang