2008 Rock The Bells Chicago (Part 2) – [Live]

Monday, 28 July 2008

(This is Part 2 of 2 of our Rock The Bells festival coverage. You can view Part 1 here.)

It was time for hosting duties to switch up. Supernatural was done for the day, and Cypress Hill's B-Real made his entrance singing the chorus to his group's “Hand on the Pump,” which not coincidentally featured heavily in the first performance from the duo he was about to announce. Blasting onto stage came Method Man & Redman, taking their cue from B-Real to launch straight into “Da Rockwilder.” With the packed crowd on its feet—chairs at a show always seem like more trouble than they are worth, but chairs at a day-long festival are a blessing—the two wasted no time in pumping up the energy level. While the other acts on stage were rappers, Method and Red are most definitely performers—sprinting back and forth across stage, squirting water bottles all over the crowd, perching on the bar deck in the middle of the audience with fans' hands all over them (including that one guy who looked like he was trying to harness Method Man's chi…or something like that).

The set was a combination of solo tracks from each, a handful of Wu-Tang cuts and a few off of Blackout!, plus a new track here and there. “Big Dogs” was followed by “M.E.T.H.O.D. Man,” which led to “Bring the Pain” and the beginning of the crowd diving. Method began walking gingerly across the crowd's outstreched hands into the pit, spitting rhymes and posturing as he went. Then it was Redman's turn, as he made the same walk (though not as far) during “I'll Be Dat.” All the while, both rappers were running back and forth to the far corners of the stage, berating the crowd if they weren't loud enough, and bantering with each other and their onstage guests (some have said it was Raekwon and Ghostface, but I'm not so sure), and at one point Method Man did a front flip into the pit. After Redman performed the first verse of “Rapper's Delight” and they announced the forthcoming How High 2, they tossed all their remaining water bottles to the crowd and then vanished backstage, leaving the crowd pumped and screaming for more.

It was unfortunate, then, that Mos Def's performance ended up wasting a lot of that energy. I've always believed that Mos Def is the coolest motherfucker on the planet, but he seemed off. He stepped onstage to an apropos sample, “Chicago” from Crosby, Stills & Nash, and proceeded to play the longest set up to that point, but much of it seemed geared more towards Def Poetry Jam than a festival crowd just jacked to its breaking point by charismatic performers like Meth & Red. Apart from “Hip Hop” and new track “Twilight Speedball Big Static,” the first six songs were mysteries, some acapella, others maybe forthcoming, possibly just flat-out new. It might have been too cerebral for the audience, some of whom were seated before he Mos Def stepped on stage and remained that way throughout the performance. The second half of his set showed a bit more of the gritty, socially aware side of the rapper, including the repeated, increasingly angry refrain of “Who shot Biggie, Pac and Jam Master Jay” from True Magic's “Perfect Timing,” as well as The New Danger's “Close Edge.” Then things got weird. With his stage time up, Mos asked for “uno mas,” and when he was denied, actually started begging for the time to perform one more song. Finally, after multiple denials, he said goodnight and stalked into the wings, where loud boos from the crowd followed him. Apparently afraid that the crowd might turn, whoever was in charge of the schedule relented, and we got to hear—and sing along to—“Umi Says” before roadies came out to set up for the Pharcyde.

The fans were in for a treat. B-Real made sure to remind everyone that this was the very first time in eleven years that all four members of The Pharcyde performed together, and they wasted no time in working the fans into a frenzy. One of the benefits of not having recorded anything as a foursome since 1995's Labcabincalifornia is the fact that everything in the catalog is a classic. “Runnin,” “She Said,” “Drop”; anything the foursome played was greeted with raucous cheers and awkward white boy dance moves. The sun had gone down enough that the screens flanking the stage were usable, and the tracks that had videos were accompanied by said videos, while other songs flashed random images, shots of the band, or extended photo montages of J Dilla (who produced much of Labcabincalifornia).When the live band started playing the opening strains of “Ya Mama,” the audience began to roar and rapped along with every word. It was the same with “Passing Me By,” and Fatlip's solo contribution “What's Up Fatlip.” All four bounced around like the teenagers they once were, grining from ear-to-ear as they ran through thirteen songs before finishing off the night with a fist pumping rendition of “Oh Shit.”

Things took a darker turn as Nas began to rap. No introduction, no games with the crowd to see which section was louder, no videos or guests, just a stark contrast to the antics of The Pharcyde as he paced back and forth. Dressed all in white with sunglasses and a small cross around his neck, there was nothing to distract from the message—and that message was angry. First up was “N.I.G.G.E.R.” from the just released Nas (or whatever you choose to call it) followed by his Fox News-bashing “The Sly Fox.” Nas' tirade against Fox continued as he referred to the channel as “the Fox Noose beacause they like to hang a n***a,” and even more straightforwardly telling the crowd “do not watch Fox News, it is the devil.” From there, he leapt straight into his back catalog, running chronologically through his career with stops on “NY State of Mind” and “Represent.” The DJ began to spin “Street Dreams” and Nas dropped the opening stanza, right up to the beginning of the first verse, and then both immediately switched over to “If I Ruled the World.” If the crowd was disappointed in missing out on 90% of “Street Dreams,” they didn't show it. Instead, they drowned out the Lauryn Hill portions of “If I Ruled the World,” singing out the chorus and bridge, and rapped along, entranced by the verses.

At no other point in the evening was the audience so focused or involved, and it was interesting to compare Nas' performance with Mos Def's; both artists stepped on stage directly after party MCs who moved the crowd, but while Mos Def's constituted a lull, Nas' tight, spring-wound set saw him cradling the fans in the palm of his hand. That made it all the more puzzling that his set was so short—nine songs—in comparison to the performances both before and after his. Nevertheless, his rendition of “One Mic,” with all the charisma and conviction of a Baptist preacher spinning a sermon, was a fitting ending to his show.

For the second (and final) time in the evening, full band gear was wheeled out on stage, but the JumboTron stayed blank as Q-Tip came out sans Phife or Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Backed by a two-stepping band, some of whom were wearing the same t-shirt as him—an Alife shirt with lyrics from “The Abstract”—Q-Tip did a fairly long set by himself, including solo stuff like “Breathe and Stop” and “Higher,” as well as a couple of Tribe tracks (like “Footprints” and “The Abstract”) where he'd only spit his lines and cut the song short. Following “Vivrant Thing,” he left the stage, backpack still strapped to his back (not metaphorically, he actually wore a backpack the whole time) and the lights went dark. The crowd was understandable confused, since the bill was topped with A Tribe Called Quest, not Q-Tip. There were grumbles and even a few boos as the stage crew wheeled away the live band setup.

All fears were allayed when a familiar robotic voice from Midnight Marauders began to speak over the P.A. Q-Tip came back out on stage—sans backpack—this time joined by Phife with Ali Shaheed Muhammad up on the DJ platform. The trio took advantage of the JumboTron, with almost every song having an accompanied illustrated video. “Oh My God” was supplemented by the Tribe Guide to Rock The Party, a technical guide with diagrams on how to do just that. “Lyrics To Go” and “Skypager” featured more of the same, and the group did something from just about every album, from the head-bobbing “Scenario” to the call-and-response of “Can I Kick It?” (and yes, they could). As they capped off the night with “Award Tour,” it was pretty easy to see that that's exactly what this summer's Rock the Bells would be remebered as. With big name acts from all across the spectrum, it's definitely not a show to be missed.

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