No Bird Sing album release at The Cedar, 11/14/13
No Bird Sing Definition Sickness Album Release
With Dem Atlas and Alpha Consumer
Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Joe Horton, frontman of local post-rap trio No Bird Sing, embodies the exuberance and joy of hip-hop. So much so, in fact, that he seems to take the polite stares and pocketed hands of any crowd he faces as a personal challenge to bare even more of his soul through his performance. Horton ran through nearly every trick in the MC playbook, and more than a few of his own design, but nothing seemed to turn the crowd into the frenzy he was looking for on Thursday. On paper, that sounds like failure, but the glazed eyes in the Cedar last night weren't distant because of boredom. No, they were transfixed, like eyes of someone utterly riveted by their new favorite film.
Opener Dem Atlas sure had timing on his side for this evening's performance. The extremely young MC, birthname Joshua Evans Turner, just announced his freshly inked contract with Rhymesayers Entertainment this week, which is just about the best pre-show confidence booster anyone could ask for. With a distinctive style that's half Wayne and half JR from Bad Brains, Atlas definitely had his aesthetics on point. It's easy to see what the biggest name in local hip-hop sees in him. The kid just oozes old-school rock-star charisma and looks like ought to be famous for something.
Thankfully, the rapper also has talent and originality to back up his image. While he's difficult to pigeonhole, he's got a strong base in the lyrically-focused Brookyln boom-bap sound of early Mos Def and Smif & Wessun, but with a distinct dash of left-coast weirdness that you might have found in groups like Pharcyde. Wrap that up in a Minneapolis-centric punk sensibility and you've recipe for a very dynamic live show.
Atlas bounded around the stage, kicking his lanky legs like Steven Tyler, and at one point even leaped over the fourth wall to drive a verse home. While his songwriting's still a little underdeveloped, he's working with a lot of great raw material and really seems on the verge of a breakthrough. It's exciting to watch, and so was his tune with a man he credited as a mentor and major inspiration, local slam-poet and hip-hop head Guante. The pair of MCs currently have a project together called Sifu Hotman that's a verbose update to the meat-and-potatoes verse-trading partnerships from hip-hop's golden age.
Someone probably thought they were being daring or clever by booking local power-trio Alpha Consumer as support for an oddball hip-hop show. In theory, it sounds decent, after all, Alpha Consumer are a group made up of incredible strong players with unassailable chops and resumes. Guitarist Jeremy Ylvisker, bassist Michael Lewis and drummer J.T. Bates have all made their names with acts as big as Andrew Bird, but it's tough to make a strong case for Alpha Consumer itself.
Sure, it's always fun to watch three fantastic musicians play around with each other, but with so many superfluous quirks, the appeal wore off in the context of a hip-hop show. To their credit, Alpha Consumer normally do a great job of injecting a bit of silly, ironic commentary into a rock scene that isn't always a lot of fun. But when their set was bookended by such humble, sincere and earnest performances from Dem Atlas and No Bird Sing, it really did seem like Alpha Consumer might be better off in different company.
Since they've begun regularly hosting local rock and R&B shows, it's become easy to forget that the Cedar is a truly unique room in the landscape of TC venues. In-between songs, the cavernous space can become truly quiet, like a concert hall, which isn't a quality normally conducive to a great hip-hop show. But No Bird Sing are exactly the kind of unique, trailblazing group that could find a way to use this to their advantage. Joe Horton can effortlessly shift between rallying shouts at the song's climax to intimate, poetic murmuring during their slower portions. No Bird Sing's co-producers and musicians Robert Mulrennan and Graham O'Brien craft sprawling, cinematic beats that tend to be slow-burners with huge, energetic payouts, and the tension-and-release dynamic really worked in the group's favor.
Focusing their set entirely on material from their brand new album Definition Sickness, No Bird Sing also had some good news to announce. The group was able to sign a deal with Rhode Island-based Strange Famous records, which seems like good company for a group that's finding their sound on the darker, stormier end of the hip-hop spectrum. Lyrically and sonically, Sickness is as serious and contemplative as you'd expect from a band that takes their name from a Keats poem.