Indie rock is not what I expected to hear when I entered Denver’s Summit Music Hall on Saturday night.
Considering GZA, “The Genius” and Wu-Tang Clan member, was headlining the 64 Squares Tour, I expected nothing less than a night filled with hip-hop.
As I walked through a nearly empty venue to claim an optimal spot on the barrier, I not only saw a DJ set-up, complete with a MacBook, drum machine and turntable, but also a complete drum kit, guitar, bass, keyboard and four microphones. This made me unbelievably excited; I’ve never seen a hip-hop group abandon drum machines for a traditional rock instrument line-up. I knew I was in for something incredible.
GZA, the oldest member of the Wu Tang Clan, has been touring for over 20 years. (CU Independent/Avalon Jacka)
But when opener Bear Hands came onstage, my hopes were slightly crushed. What I got was not a hip-hop rock band, but four hipsters. The only thing that hipsters have in common with hip-hop is the beginning of their labels.
Although my musical prediction did not come true, I wasn’t disappointed for long. Bear Hands was, well, pretty damn good. Within 10 seconds of its first song, the band’s post-punk-new-wave-reggae sound had me hooked. If I had cash on me, I would have bought a CD, and I can’t tell you the last time I bought a CD. That’s just how good its live show was.
Each member had an expert technical handle on his respective instruments, which made watching Bear Hands even more entertaining. What was even more impressive was that each member played not one, but at least two instruments throughout the set. Drummer TJ Orscher even played the drums with a maraca instead of a drumstick. A maraca. It was awesome.
Continuing in the vein of unexpected openers for a hip-hop show, Sweet Valley, an instrumental beats project of Wavves’ Nathan Williams, opened his set with a song that was more EDM than hip-hop, and he continued in this style for a few songs.
Watching Williams play his set initially was like watching someone play a DJing video game, complete with video game-like samples backed by bass and beats. Most of his set involved Williams nodding his head to the beat, which made his hat brim seem like it was hitting the snare drum itself, while he stared at his computer screen. There’s nothing exciting about seeing a live DJ set, at least for me, and Williams helped me prove this point.
Williams slowly transitioned through his songs from the dancey sound he started with to a more sampled, bass-driven hip-hop sound. Williams’ ridiculous outfit, consisting of a Hawaiian shirt, mustache, shamelessly self-promoting flat-brimmed Wavves baseball cap and swigs straight from a Jameson 750 matched the night’s eventual transition to hip-hop. This allowed for a more natural progression between hipster-friendly Bear Hands and third opener, hip-hop veteran Killer Mike.
Although it was unexpected to have two indie-rock bands open for two hip-hop stars, it was a refreshing change of pace for a concert. Aside from music festivals, this mixing of genres at concerts and on tour is relatively unheard of in the music community, but it is something I think should happen more often.
Finally, my hip-hop-filled evening could begin: Killer Mike came onstage, wearing a giant black t-shirt with “VILLAIN” spread across his chest in white block letters. By now, the previously empty hall was filled. This was obvious by how much louder the cheers had gotten between the end of Sweet Valley’s set and the beginning of Killer Mike’s.
Though Killer Mike doesn’t have a traditional hype man to get the audience riled up before he comes onstage, he definitely didn’t need one for this show. His work speaks for itself. Although he tried to convince the audience that we were his hype man, it was obvious that he was definitely the one running the show.
Backed by DJ Trackstar, Killer Mike went through old tracks, like his segment in the track “The Whole World” by Outkast, as well as many off of his latest release, “R.A.P. Music.” One such song was “Reagan,” an attack on the War on Drugs. DJ Trackstar disappeared behind his DJ table in the middle of this song and popped back up in a Reagan mask. The ironic use of the Gipper’s likeness during the song was terrifying for me (think lifeless eyeholes and immovable lips) but got a lot of laughs from the audience.
To wrap up his set, Killer Mike came down and stood on the barrier between the audience and the stage, saying we were “just too far away.” Halfway through the final song, Mike moved over the barrier into the crowd, smoked some blunts and finished his set. This got the crowd amped up for the final act of the night, the legendary GZA.
GZA has been going on tour for 20 years. He has no fear of performing anymore, and if anything, he is comfortable onstage. He doesn’t even dress like a thug anymore, because he doesn’t need to. In a grey sweatshirt and black jeans, GZA moved effortlessly across the stage. He doesn’t rely on the jumping around, arm bouncing and hyping that many younger rappers need to get the crowd pumped. No, he is the GZA, The Genius, from the Wu-Tang Clan, and, in the Clan’s own words, “Wu Tang Clan ain’t nuttin ta f’ wit.”
The headlining set opened with “Liquid Swords,” backed by Sweet Valley on guitar and DJ Trackstar as DJ. Because this is one of GZA’s and Wu-Tang’s best known songs, the audience went crazy within seconds.
He flowed between each song with little more than a quick key or rhythm change and rarely used talk breaks. This was a lot more interesting than talking about himself every other song. In fact, the only times he talked, he was usually gently insulting the audience, asking us why we were acting like were were in Aspen, why we were staring at him like we didn’t want to be there and to throw an ounce onstage.
GZA finally abandoned his laid-back pacing towards the end of the set when he started dancing. He asked the audience if we knew what each move was, and though we didn’t, he still managed to get a few laughs.
The set ended with arguably Wu Tang’s best-known song, “C.R.E.A.M.” GZA then went into saying his thank yous to everyone on tour, the venue and so on. It was weird that he said these at the very end of his set rather than in the middle, because most artists, if they say anything, sprinkle these in throughout their set. When he completed his acknowledgements, he ended his set once and for all with a reprise of “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuttin’ Ta F’ Wit,” to Denver’s loudest cheers of the night.
Although the 64 Squares Tour was not what I expected, I was definitely not disappointed. I learned about an awesome indie band, found out about Wavves’ new side project and saw two legendary rappers. Not a bad night, if you ask me.
Contact CU Independent Entertainment Editor Avalon Jacka at Avalon.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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