Not totally eager to spend another full day entrenched in the dust and curiously sweet cigarette smoke wafting through Union Park (Pitchfork fest murdered my sinuses), I showed up to Zune’s Live at the BBQ a little late. I missed locals Qualo and walked through the gate right in the middle of Little Brother’s set, which sounded pretty bouncin’ from where I heard it — the Microsoft Zune Interactive Tent. There, I got to test out the Zune player’s unique two-dimensional graphical user interface and browse the online Zune Marketplace’s three-million song catalog. (Why, with the special-edition Halo Zune portable media player cornering the gamer demographic, Microsoft is sure to outpace the iPod in the digital audio player market by Christmas!)
But all elbowing aside, it was strange to see how little, besides in the interactive tent, the Zune was actually promoted at the BBQ. I’m not sure how effective the event was as a cross-marketing, cultural happening; anyone who hadn’t already signed up for the event online was denied entry, and I’m not sure how many people there were interested in fiddling with an MP3 player. But as a musical event, the day was a blast. The crowd wasn’t huge, which was refreshing just a week after seeing the park claustrophobically stuffed for the Pitchfork fest, but all in attendance were dedicated, enthusiastic fans. And they didn’t even know until the end of the show about the surprise guest — Talib Kweli, who ended up being the highlight of the night.
But before Talib and after Little Brother came Bilal. Now, at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I admit that I’m of the opinion that most contemporary R&B is pretty lousy. The field that once boasted such subtlety of inflection is now overpopulated with singers who too often compensate for their lack of charisma with overwrought melismatic swelling surrounded by turgid arrangements that suck out the very essence which once guided the music (namely, “soul”). Occasional bright spots pump life into the moribund genre via fusion with the more innovative hip-hop field. So it was pleasantly surprising to see Bilal, a singer with such scattered album releases and guest appearances (recently with Common and Clipse) that he may as well be considered a newcomer, so briskly overcoming those pratfalls in his Union Park performance. His sizable band’s loose, funky arrangements actually complemented his considerable powers as a singer, and he and the band cranked out extra-long R&B workouts that didn’t rely on preprogrammed flash and zoom.
His energizing effect on the crowd endured up through Talib Kweli’s set, which was technically superb. He and guest Jean Grae (frequent collaborator and recent sign to his label, Blacksmith(http://blacksmithnyc.com/)) tore through some familiar songs (“Get By,” “Black Girl Pain”) and some unfamiliar ones. One of the best propped Paul McCartney’s mournful “Ah, look at all the lonely people” lyric from “Eleanor Rigby” against the bass line from Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly.” The crowd was pumped when Mos Def finally popped up on stage, and the pair did a few choice Black Star cuts in between Mos’s set. The apex of their riveting performance came when the deejay spun brief clips of old-school soul tracks (Luther Vandross, Ray Charles) that morphed into Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty.”
Such a potent performance only left me wondering why Mos and Talib need a struggling MP3 player to bully them onto a stage. Talib’s consistently patchier albums only slightly better Mos’s spotty record output/quality and supposed timeout for acting (doubt we’ll be seeing a Restaurant at the End of the Universe any time soon). If they brought half the energy they did Sunday to a second Black Star album, they could feasibly re-up the alternative in alternative rap.
Talib Kweli: http://talibkweli.com
Mos Def: http://mosdefmusic.com/