Howard Gilman Opera House
Friday, April 20
Better than: Celebrating “4/20.”
Questlove’s “Shuffle Culture” event—at which ten or so musical acts performed a handful of songs each, but never more than one at a time, as if the set list itself were on shuffle—was at once strange and familiar. On one level, the premise was anticipatory, predicting a future where concertgoers won’t have the time or patience for a low-concept, single-band show. On the other, one could see the evening’s roots: in the mixtape, the DJ set, the all-star benefit concert, the R&B revue. And it was this marriage of old and new—analog and digital—that permeated the night, a constant reminder that, as Q-Tip famously told his daddy, things go in cycles.
But it all started at square one: the human voice. Staggering to the stage through the audience, the burly, gravel-voiced Reverend Vince Anderson bellowed a cryptic field holler, emphasizing lines like “the sound of love is enlightenment” and “the sound of truth is enlightenment.” At the close of the song, the curtain rose to reveal jazz man D.D. Jackson on piano, Detroit-based electronic musician Jeremy Ellis on samplers, chamber orchestra the Metropolis Ensemble, and Questlove behind an electronic trap kit; all wore all white except for Questlove, who wore all black. The first set consisted largely of sprightly classical pieces and bumping, club-ready interludes from Ellis, who initially entered with a Dan Deacon riff that went, “Where is your grandfather? I have no grandfather. He is dead.” Rock quartet Deerhoof appeared a few times with subdued-but-menacing performances, including a bouncy Fiery Furnaces cover (“The End Is Near”). Collaborations between the artists were slow to come, but Questlove eventually added subtle percussion to pieces by Ellis and the Metropolis Ensemble; Deerhoof took on strings; and Questlove entered into a thrilling dialogue with Jackson that saw them drag an old-timey rag within inches of free-jazz territory, Jackson pounding the keyboard with his forearm.
The first set also welcomed a pair of not-for-the-squeamish moments, intended, perhaps, to scare the squares. Members of the band Gray, an ensemble that once included Jean-Michel Basquiat, emerged to saw a guitar and rip tape off a drum as the Metropolis Ensemble plinked and plunked behind them. And Sasha Grey, the former porn star, stepped onstage for a freaky spoken-word piece that saw her screaming, shaking, and delivering lines like, “Will Hollywood never learn?” When she said something about a “vigorous quest,” she glanced slyly at Questlove, who looked on approvingly.
The second set continued in much the same fashion as the first—Deerhoof worked up PJ Harvey’s “Plants and Rags,” Ellis worked with Nina Simone’s “Pirate Jenny”—only with fewer experimental sections and several additional guests. Following, among other interesting segments, an at least partially improvised trio meeting between Questlove, Jackson, and a Metropolis violinist, the soulful, much-buzzed-about singer-songwriter Willis Earl Beal jumped up to offer his “Evening’s Kiss.” Despite reports of Beal’s strangeness and fragility, the performer came off as cool and confident, guitar on his lap and sunglasses in place. At the close of the tune, which prompted the only pot-related audience whoo of the night—”Always in a daze without smoking that chronic,” goes a line—Beal received perhaps the biggest applause of the night. Closing the show, however, was an authentic climax: Questlove and the masterful beatboxers Kenny Muhammad and Rahzel in an explosive three-way drum duel. This one-time triple threat was notable not only for being the one true hip-hop moment of the show, but also for the full-on musical participation of Questlove—he had hardly played up to that point, preferring to oversee the proceedings, much as he does in his role on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Placing this segment at the very end of the show, Questlove transmitted a vital piece of information: his tastes in sound may roam far and wide, but in the end, his heart lies with hip-hop.
Despite strong showings from nearly every participant, some of the joys of “Shuffle Culture” were extra-musical. D.D. Jackson, while waiting to play at one point, swayed in time to a jazz piano sample. Ellis, in a moment of extreme cleverness, cooked up an opera sample to duet with the room, an opera house. Questlove watched his players intently, especially Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier. And Samantha Sleeper’s stage design—white origami clouds against a vacuum of darkness—was positively Lynchian. Detractors will no doubt argue that no act was given long enough to settle into a groove, and that the constant back and forth between acts was distracting. But those who received the performance as a heartfelt mixtape from Questlove will find themselves searching for a Walkman.
Critical bias: Been listening pretty hard to a Voodoo-era D’Angelo bootleg (Stockholm, 2000) on which Quest tears it up.
Overheard: “You’re the only one I know who knows the porn stars,” said a woman to her date after he explained who Sasha Grey was.
Random notebook dump: Deerhoof with Strings would be an awesome album title.