Better than: an after-school special.
Because here's an undeniable truth about after-parties: Sometimes they can be as good as, if not better than, the real thing.
That, at least, was the hope held by those who turned up last night at the weekly, Wednesday night Prophet Bar jam session hosted by Erykah Badu musical director R.C. Williams and his band The Gritz.
In some ways, however, hope held out for after-parties always feels halfhearted; if not by definition, then certainly by reputation, after-parties often don't live up to their billings. Fortunately for those who found themselves out Prophet Bar way last night, this one did live up to what it was billed as -- a performance from The Gritz, a DJ set from Erykah Badu and appearances from Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Those who came just to star-gaze certainly got what they were looking for. Actually, they even got a bonus: Farnsworth Bentley was in the building as well.
But, despite the paparazzi-like action that would take place later in the evening (more on that later), this night wasn't just about sneaking a peek at some of hip-hop's most bold-faced names.
Because here's the deal: From a straight-up musical standpoint, the real stars of the night, as should be expected by anyone who has ever previously attended this weekly, were Williams and his Gritz band.
The night got started somewhat late -- later than usual even for this notoriously wee-hours event -- with DJ Jay Clipp spinning his usual old-school hip-hop-heavy fare right up until 11:30 or so and welcoming the crowds who arrived at the Prophet Bar to see that the event, normally held in the smaller of the venue's two rooms, had been upgraded to its larger one. The ever-changing Gritz lineup, on this night a seven-piece, then took the stage to soundcheck.
Here's where the Gritz earn major points: Even their soundcheck sounds cohesive, a slower-than-usual improvised song meant to help the players warm up as the sound engineer and band get their levels set. A Gritz band soundcheck, indeed, is better than 50 percent of this towns' other bands' actual offerings, as the players find a groove, settle into it and sneak tasteful flourish upon tasteful flourish into the mix with nary a word or a sideways glance shared between them.
It only gets better from there, as the band made up of Badu's backing band and various collaborators weaves in and out of songs meant for their upcoming, expected-in-the-fall full-length -- often extending these songs out into jams of their own -- and fully improvised ones to balance out the blend. A particular highlight in recent weeks has been the band's new, free-to-download single, "Summer Boo," which the band debuted at the jam a few weeks back
. This night was no different as vocalist Claudia Melton teased and pleased the crowd from her perch at the front of the stage. The song's featured rapper, Big Hud, was surprisingly absent from the stage on this night, though, despite being spotted in the room earlier in the evening. Oh well, his loss.
Because, at around 1 a.m., his disappearance was greatly overshadowed by the appearance of a bigger name, Badu, who rolled up to the venue in her white, all-original '64 Lincoln Continental, complete with whitewall tires and as seen in her controversial "Window Seat" music video
. Clearly taken by the recent dip in temperatures, Badu walked into the room wearing a white stole and a fedora, making a beeline for the side of the stage where her DJ gear awaited her.
Within minutes, she was behind her set-up, and clearly in DJ Lo Down Loretta Brown mode
, intent on DJing and not singing. She teased as much, though; among the soul tracks, '80s R&B singles and golden era hip-hop songs she played in her set, her own material was the most prevalent, each time earning an eruption from the by-now-quite-large crowd huddled before her at the stage. She didn't give in to performing, though; neither did Kweli and Mos Def, who arrived shortly thereafter to flank Badu, wave at the crowd and hype them up in particular as Badu dropped Beanie Sigel's "Roc The Mic."
The crowd didn't seem to mind, though. They got to see Badu, Kweli and Mos Def -- and huddled by the back of the stage among the rest of Badu's entourage, Farnsworth Bentley. And they were happy with it.
A successful after-party? No doubt.
It did come with one notable party foul, though: As the night finally came to a close and the crowds spilled onto Main Street to say their goodbyes, the fans encircled Badu's car, snapping pics with their cell phones as the singer, in a car filled with Kweli, Def and about five others, tried to leave. Eventually, a friend of Badu's had to exit the car to ask the crowd to stop taking pictures and disperse.
"Enough!" the friend sternly shouted, exhausted.
The crowd eventually did as they were told.
Another funny thing about after-parties: It's always the ones you didn't invite who hang around the longest, taking awkward photos and trying to over-extend the fun.