ARTS

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May 11, 2004

Unlike the Roots, rapper Common displays uncommon bond with audience

There are moments in every writer's life when he or she commits the fatal flaw of buying into his or her own words, hook, line, and sinker. For these brief aberrations, which last (if luck holds) no more than a few meager seconds, poets become insufferably convinced of their own genius, novelists fancy themselves as gods, and music critics suddenly find themselves convinced of their role as the only member of the audience that matters.

Fortunately, poets and novelists tend to be (relatively) sober, sensible people, less prone to such erroneous flights of fancy. Unfortunately, we music journalists have only the illusion, upheld through years of attending criminally under-attended shows in rundown juke joints, where the atmosphere is more "intimate" and the cheap rotgut is guaranteed to produce delusions of grandeur.

My friend Jean and I were having one of those unbearably asinine moments as we entered the massive confines of the Riviera. Above me, the empty balcony seats gaped like a snaggle-toothed British grin, while the dance floor in front was sparsely populated with the occasional clump of Northwestern undergraduates.

"Just another under-attended show, unappreciated by the unwashed masses, and so forth," I thought, wrapped up in the ugly spell of the critic's ego. We moseyed to the front of the dance floor, intent on staking out an excellent spot to watch the show and to dance—although, from the looks of things, all that preparation would hardly be necessary.

And so, we stood and talked, failing to notice a trickle of entering students turning into a stream, then a river. It wasn't until local b-boy hero Common took the stage that I started to realize that the dance floor was getting a mite bit crowded, and the auditorium was beginning to bake. Figuring that it was probably just the lack of air conditioning and a handful of over-eager fans, I paid no attention to the small crowd, and proceeded to tell Jean about the opening act, Common. I droned on in my best pretentious professor voice amidst the cheers and screams.

"A fixture on the Chicago hip-hop scene since the days when hip-hop meant either New York City or California, Common Sense oozes Chicago style, often name-checking the Red Line, the Robert Taylor Homes, and other fixtures of South Side Chicago life. Armed with enough social consciousness and ass-shaking grooves to make A Tribe Called Quest jealous, the rapper now known as Common is one of the last great hip-hop party prophets—an extremely agile MC who can make you think in the midst of a raucous house party," I declared. Jean just rolled her eyes.

Thankfully, the houselights dimmed before I got a chance to respond, and the Riviera sunk into an inky pool of stifling heat and anticipation. People rocked nervously, sipping their beers, eyeing their dates, and finally staring at the lanky figure striding confidently to the mic.

"It's good to be back in the crib tonight, Chicago," Common began. "This is our crib, but let's treat it like y'all are in the basement, like in your crib, just chillin.'" Sweaty bodies moved closer to the stage in the sticky darkness. Common gestured to the DJ, who merely flashed a cool smile and then dropped the needle on the first track.

Flashbulbs and lights flickered as I twisted around for a better view. For a brief moment, I had the glimpse of a completely packed house, rows and rows of people stretching back from the stage to the top of the terraced balcony, all dancing and swaying. Humbled and feeling quite small, I turned back and watched the master at work.

Accompanied only by his DJ, Common proceeded to slink through a set of old classics and some hypnotic newer grooves. Running nearly non-stop from "The Light" through a cover of Black Star's "Thieves in the Night," only pausing for some turntable heroics and a freestyle competition against a highly-skilled anonymous local, Common set the bar for high-energy entertainment, as we danced until our legs simply would not work anymore.

Following Common's excellent set, things were getting ugly as fraternity boys and their dates pushed their way towards the front of an already over-crowded dance floor. The air was boiling and sweat was dripping down made-up faces. Tempers flared and teeth were bared, and several spats erupted around us. Amidst the pushing and the snarling, I could only hope that the Roots came on before the bouncers threw us out.

However, before the tensions could hit critical mass, we were saved by the appearance of hip-hop's best house band, Philadelphia's own the Roots. Mixing jazz, rock, and soul with a liberal dosage of phenomenal lyrical ability, the Roots are not so much a band as a physical embodiment of pure groove.

Led by the fierce drumming of a mohawked ?uestlove, the Roots battered the audience with funky basslines, blues-y guitar, delicate keys, and ungodly volume—rattling teeth and pounding eardrums. Tearing through a wide range of material spanning the old school ("Proceed," a fantastic cover of Rick James's "Super Freak") to previously unheard tracks from their upcoming album, the Roots played an above-average set of excellent songs.

Unfortunately, while their set contained no real mistakes, the Roots did not quite manage to recreate the playful groove and intellectual fire of their records and past live performances. Looking distinctly uncomfortable with the audience, they seemed eager to finish the set as quickly and loudly as possible. Still, it must be said that a half-assed set by the Roots is still better than the best set from almost any other artist performing today.

Midway through the encore, Jean and I left. Walking to the El station, we discussed the merits of the show at a volume usually reserved for domestic disputes. "Of course, I enjoyed the show," I shouted. "It made me realize what an elitist I've been recently. There's nothing like dancing in a crowd."

"So it was worth it?" Jean asked at a quieter roar.

I thought for a second.

"Any show that manages to remind me that it's not nice to be a jackass is worth its attendance in gold bullion," I screamed proudly.

Jean just laughed.