It all came down to a space heater. That, plus a lack of communication between organizers and a slightly prima-donna star, led to a somewhat heartbreaking KRS-One show at The Cathedral on Saturday night.
Don't get me wrong; this was still a great show well worth attending. The Cathedral has the organic and artistic feel of a non-corporate, underground venue. And I have been waiting to see the Teacha' with baited breath since being blown away at last summer's Northwest World Reggae Fest in Woodburn. So any hitch in the night would have been a major bummer for me.
The star's complaints about the sound throughout most of the show, and his ending his set abruptly after the sound went out entirely for the second time, certainly qualifies as a hitch.
But let me back up a bit.
This show was put on by Mutant Audio and Conscious Productions (the promoters behind the reggae fest), and was a benefit for City Repair and Guerrilla Theater. City Repair (www.cityrepair.org) is the creative genius behind the renovation of the borrowed N. Mississippi warehouse, turning a mundane A-frame into the bizarre and wonderful Cathedral space, replete with a stretched fabrics ceiling and painted floor. Guerrilla Theater is a homeless spoken word collective associated with the homeless outreach center Outside In.
Although it was a benefit, information tables were conspicuously lacking. I don't think many attendees knew who they were benefiting, or why. Also missing were any official representatives of KRS-One's Temple of Hip-Hop (www.templeofhiphop.org), his own benefit cause of choice. I was hoping that this event would do more to enlighten the gathered masses beyond the words of the performers. But hey, it's still just a show, right?
I got to the Cathedral early in the evening for a press conference with KRS-One (Knowledge Reins Supreme-Over Nearly Everyone). A small room in the "venue" was packed with reporters and fans; mainly a group of young kids sitting in a circle asking the underground hip-hop star questions.
While it was certainly exciting to hear KRS speak on a variety of topics, the ego masturbation was in full swing. With a career spanning over 20 years just outside of the mainstream, KRS, now 41, is viewed as something of a living prophet of hip-hop. The group would nod reverentially at nearly every sentence, despite a serious lack of clarity in most of his answers . But whatever, it was cool to be so close to the man himself.
Later, I returned to the venue in time to catch the tail end of the Guerrilla Theater performance. Made up of homeless, at risk youth, the group gave a daring view into the trials and tribulations of life on the streets.
Unfortunately, the crowd was not paying much attention. This performance actually came through more powerfully over my car radio on the way to the show, broadcast live by KBOO FM, than in person at The Cathedral.
Next came Eugene-based Animal Farm to kick things up a notch. Their beats were great, and the MCs seemed competent enough. But something missing either in their stage presence or flow made the set pass by without me taking notice of the lyrics. I have no idea what they talked about, but it sounded pretty good.
As the night rolled along, Portland's premiere female MCs, Syndel and Toni Hill of Siren's Echo, took the stage. Again, the sound was decent, but the show was missing the must-dance punch of sublime subwoofer sounds. I spent most of the opening acts in the mixed-drink friendly beer garden, which was removed from the line of direct sound. So I missed the nuances of some of the early acts, but I was enjoying a few excellent and reasonably priced potables ($5 Maker's at a show? Oh yeah!).
I really started paying attention to the music when Fogatron and Nico Luminous of Luminous Fog (one of my top 5 favorite Portland bands) picked up the mics. Trading off complex beat-box sounds, the duo stunned the crowd with a full band sound emanating from only two mouths. These guys really got the show in gear.
Finally, just before midnight, KRS-One graced the stage. The 600-plus crowd filling the room erupted into cheers and surged forward. As his DJ began to break into his set, KRS called off the music and started the show with just his vocals and Fogatron's beat boxing.
This opening illustrates KRS' ability to make a show feel dynamic and personal, a unique testament to place and time. Later in the night, KRS called up any b-boys and b-girls in the crowd to display break dancing moves onstage. By paying tribute to local talent, KRS managed to make a crowd feel like a dynamic part of global hip-hop culture.
As his set began in earnest, the sound surged up a notch. But KRS wasn't (and rarely is) satisfied with the sound. "Turn it up! Turn up the Mics!" he repeatedly requested. It sounded pretty good to me, although definitely fell shy of the orgasmically gut-shaking bass of a true hip hop blowout.
He got a few classics out of the way early, thankfully speeding through the his overplayed (and best-known) single, "Sound of the Police". I enjoyed the dancehall-delivery (more singsong, less rap) of "Black Cop", and was just starting to feel like this was "it", when the microphone cut out entirely.
This is the immediate death of most hip-hop shows, but KRS quieted the crowd and tried to shout his vocals acapella. I admired the attempt, but the momentum was still lost. The sound came back on, but it was constantly marred by feedback and KRS' incredulity at the lack of volume.
Because I know the soundman and am friends with several folks in City Repair, these hitches in the sound were ice daggers into my vibe. While much of the crowd seemed happy to weather the storm, I cringed at every kink, which ended up meaning a lot of cringing.
An hour and fifteen minutes later, the sound shut down again. KRS finished his song and quickly left the stage. The abrupt exit startled the crowd, who were still deep into the music. I felt it was somewhat unprofessional for KRS to leave so suddenly, but I'm sure the sound problems were quite irksome. It felt like we had seen an extended pre-game show, which hovered on the edge of beginning in earnest, without ever quite getting there. We all milled about for a spell, until it became clear our star was not returning.
By then it was after one, and people began drifting home. Luminous Fog took the stage again, now with a fuller band. But the party was deflated. A break-dance circle at the back of the room almost broke out into a (totally unnecessary) fight. I had one more drink with my friends and caught a ride back to Southeast, feeling the heady mix of hot anticipation and clammy disappointment akin to a (rare) night at the strip clubs.
Last summer's KRS-One show was bumped from its Saturday slot to Sunday due to noise regulations and a timing screw-up. To see two KRS shows in a row end up in an apology was a bummer. "That show was frustrating for a variety of reasons," says promoter and sound man Doug Carnie.
It turns out that, unbeknownst to Carnie, someone had plugged a 1000-watt space heater into the same circuit as the powerful onstage monitors. The old wiring of the building, which is more rave-warehouse than proper venue, couldn't supply enough juice. So the on-stage sound kept browning out or blowing the circuit.
"Had I known about the heater, I would have unplugged it immediately," says Carnie.
But, he says that the KRS-One family is understanding of the situation, and still wants to work with Mutant Audio and Conscious Productions in the future. Keep your ears open for a possible return of the Teacha' at this summer's reggae fest. The Cathedral will only exist through February, so be sure to check out any other shows that come through.
This was a good illustration of the possible pitfalls of an underground benefit show. All the elements were there: A great headliner, an amazing space, and a great crowd. But without the central organization of a corporate identity, a minor detail can bring the whole thing crashing down. Again, it was still a great show; KRS is a powerful performer, and the causes brought a varied and generally conscious crowd. But in the end a show must be judged on its sound, and tonight it was lacking.