Over The Weekend: Aesop Rock at the Granada Theater

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Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, DJ Big Wiz
Granada Theater
Saturday, December 5, 2009

Better than: studying for an essay exam.

Easily one of the most eccentric and talented wordsmiths in the world of hip-hop, Aesop Rock has been giving underground heads some of the most dense and textured rap to unravel for a decade now.

(Has it really been that long?)

Aes was joined at the Granada Saturday night by fellow Def Jux labelmate Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz; together, the three form a trio that goes by the moniker "Hail Mary Mallon" on the latest Def Jux Presents compilation. In a showcase that was equal parts lyrical flexing and sonic adventure, the evening was easily one of the year's finest hip-hop affairs.

Given the sheer depth of the content, Aesop Rock is a hard shell to crack in the live setting. While his aura is far from impenetrable, it's easy to see how the complex emotional landscape that Aesop Rock weaves with his words is best suited for albums--and repeated listens at that.

But it isn't so hard to tell that Aes puts the same type of calculated approach into his live show that he does with his record--his stage swagger and crowd interaction came off far more like the traditional call-and-response than would be expected if you were judging the set based solely on his recorded work. And, given the fact that his show in Austin the previous night was postponed due to weather, it seemed that this crew was itching to get back in front of a crowd.

The packed house at the Granada definitely scratched that itch.

Aesop Rock's diversity comes through in the form of a variety of lyrical and musical approaches. His insatiable quest to satisfy himself artistically comes off like a moving target, yet the entire 80-minute set was far from lacking continuity.Again, this difficult packaging is better suited for repeated listens, but a show like this brings with it big rewards for the long-time fan who has dissected the man's verbal skills. The crowd burst into mid-song cheers when the artist performed a particularly complex turn of phrase.

Far more focused on narrative techniques than the standard issue braggadocio, it was that showcase of skill that seems too often missing from the hip-hop that separates Aesop Rock from the rest of the genre. The irony here: Aes is one of the few rappers who actually stands apart enough to actually warrant a little bragging.

Leaving this show, it certainly felt like one had attended a performance. Looking around the room, it wasn't hard to get the feeling that it was filled with thinkers obsessed with lyrics. And yet the crowd involvement had moments when--dare I say it--I think I saw some people dancing.

Much of the set list came from Aes' 2007 release None Shall Pass, although he did dig a little deeper into the bag to perform some of his older faves such as "Big Bang" and "Labor." He even threw in a few rarities like "Fishtales" and "Fast Cars" that predictably threw a few hardcore fans into a state of frenzy. Curiously absent, though, was 2003's Bazooka Tooth, which he failed to touch at all.

Let's not forget his supporting cast, though: DJ Big Wiz provided enough skill and texture by way of his scratching and re-mixing of some favorite tracks to not fade into the background as many stage disc jockeys are wont to do. And Rob Sonic is a true professional, less hype man and more co-performer, whose double-time rap skills were right on par with the headliner's. Rob was even given the spotlight at times as four of his solo tracks were interspersed throughout the set without a drop off in the set's energy.

For visuals, the trio made use of the Granada's two massive video screens, which were calibrated to twitch and flicker in unison with Big Wiz' cuts. The eye candy--rich and at times obtuse--predictably included a healthy dose of art from Aesop Rock's friend in art, the popular Jeremy Fish. At the end of the night, I heard more than one person say that it was the best hip-hop show they'd been to in a while.

Given the large focus he put on his latest work, it's clear to see that Aes is the type of guy to capture his feelings and is quick to go on to the next thing. It's obvious that he hasn't fallen in love with much of his earlier work that perhaps exposed him to the largest chunk of his listeners and that he's mostly in this game to create music that will impress ad satisfy him.

At one point he said, "I'm getting pelted with requests from 10 years ago." While this may have been frustrating for those who came to hear much of Labor Days or Float, or even his earlier self-released work, it just goes to show that Aesop Rock is showing no signs of slowing down and probably has some more unexpected tricks up his sleeve for his next album expected in 2010.

Critics' Notebook
Personal Bias:
As a certified Def Jukie, it was quite refreshing to see an underground hip-hop act fill up a venue--especially here in Dallas, given the state of rap in our fair city. Seeing people rally around art that focuses on lyrics and favors intelligence will always give me hope for future generations of rap fans.

Random Note: Aesop Rock's touring DJ and cohort in the Hail Mary Mallon project, DJ Big Wiz, is actually a product of the Lone Star State. I, and some others in the crowd, were quite surprised when we were instructed to "give it up for one of your own." Go Texas.

By the Way: The performers were quite impressed by the Dallas Observer's reigning live venue of the year, stating their approval by calling the Granada "a gem of a venue." In a move that may just cause him some grief in his home town, Rob Sonic said in no uncertain terms that we have better venues than New York. Bam! Aesop Rock's assertion of "That's gonna be on YouTube in like five minutes!" was only off by a few hours. (Sorry, Mr. Sonic. I know you said not to tell New York you said that, but we just can't help gloating.)

Set list:
1. Citronella??? [None Shall Pass]
2. Coffee [None Shall Pass]
3. Catacomb Kids [None Shall Pass]
4. Fishtales [Fishtales]
5. Teeth Eat Her (Rob Sonic) [Sabotage Gigante]
6. Labor [Labor Days]
7. Big Bang [Float]
8. No Regrets [Labor Days]
9. Getaway Car [None Shall Pass]
10. Rock the Convoy (Rob Sonic) [Sabotage Gigante]
11. Fast Cars [Fast Cars, Danger, Fire And Knives EP]
12. Ready Aim Shoot (Rob Sonic) [Sabotage Gigante]
13. DJ Big Wiz turntablism interlude
14. Pigs [None Shall Pass hidden track]
15. D-Up (Hail Mary Mallon) [Def Jux Presents IV]
16. Shoplift (Rob Sonic) [Telicatessen]
17. None Shall Pass [None Shall Pass]
18. Night Light [Daylight EP]
19. Daylight [Labor Days]

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