Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Coup

"Take your pick," Prince asked us on "Musicology" a couple of years ago: "Turntables or a band?" For his set at the Black Cat on Monday night, Boots Riley of the Oakland hip-hop duo the Coup chose the latter, and he chose wisely. The guitar-drum-bass trio backing up (and sometimes drowning out) Riley ably compensated for the absence of his partner, DJ Pam the Funkstress, turning a 95-minute jaunt through Riley's recent songbook into a raucous, if ill-attended, house party.

The heavily metaled opening salvo of "Everythang," "We Are the Ones" and "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO" made clear this would be something closer to a rock show than a hip-hop scratch fest. Indeed, the 20-song set favored momentum over narrative, focusing on the shorter tracks from the Coup's two most recent albums, 2001's "Party Music" and the new "Pick a Bigger Weapon." Even "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night," a seven-minute epic on the 1998 "Steal This Album" LP, ended abruptly after a single verse, prompting a heckler to yell, "Finish the song!"

If the Cat's acoustics didn't allow Riley the vocal subtlety he has on record, he was still a commanding bandleader, resplendent in his towering Afro and flame-embroidered cowboy shirt. Singer-rapper Silk E made for a powerful visual and vocal foil, swinging her fists and grooving furiously whenever she wasn't belting out harmonies. When Riley gave her the stage, she showed no lack of soul power or star power: You know you're good when you can sing a song called "Babyletshaveababybeforebushdosomethingcrazy" and it doesn't sound like a joke.

Riley's lyrics are unabashed agitprop, but he mostly refrained from between-song speechifying, suggesting he is at least as much "party" as he is communist.

-- Chris Klimek

Fairport Convention

When David Eisner, president of the Institute of Musical Traditions, apologized that Monday's concert at St. Mark's Presbyterian Church in Rockville was starting a little late, Simon Nicol of Fairport Convention waved his hand and noted, "We were ready!" As they have been for nigh on to 40 years.

Fairport Convention, now touring the States as a trio, has endured through numerous incarnations. Old fans expecting the Brit-folk of the Richard Thompson/Dave Swarbrick era might have been surprised by this lineup, but it offered the most cohesive front the group has seen in a very long time, with a performance grounded in love of melody and instrumental virtuosity.

Nicol, the only original Fairporter remaining, is its musical and emotional center, his guitar work offering a steady backup to Chris Leslie and Ric Sanders. Sanders got many of the night's flashier moments, including swooping fiddle leads on tune sets inspired by Django Reinhardt-esque swing and British morris dance. Leslie, a fine folk tenor and a multi-instrumentalist, composed many of the songs, including several inspired by the band's Oxfordshire homeland.

Yes, gray and brown heads alike bobbed and even a few tears gathered during the group's anthemic closer, "Meet on the Ledge." But the high point came during "The Girl From the Hiring Fair." Ralph McTell's bucolic love song, delivered by Nicol in an aged voice that still carries youthful wonder, segued into what at first seemed like an endless coda on Sanders's violin, then into an impassioned, carefully measured performance of Gershwin's "Summertime." No wonder they couldn't keep those live CDs in stock.

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