Writing about a new record, and especially a live performance by Shabazz Palaces (Seattle’s Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire) means contending with a thousand urgent, fragmentary impressions and impulses all vying for position, attention, and expression. Every new impression about what they do quickly sinks beneath the weight of hundreds more piling on top, none providing any solid ground to stand on. First thought doesn’t produce best thought in this case. The Shabazz sound is music and performance that demands we give up our cherished genre labels as handles for praise and/or sales. Forget them all. If you like what they do, you know why.
With more than 8 venues for live performance scattered around the college town of Knoxville, Tennessee, even a sold-out music festival like Big Ears means important acts like Shabazz will have much smaller audiences than if they were headlining or on a tour date evening. Big Ears routinely curates wildly diverse tastes, from singer/songwriter to drone artists, and attendees must make hard choices about what shows to see. Legends routinely perform alongside newcomers.
No one can see everything, so it comes down to following your heart.
It’s hard to get tickets to see Shabazz in smaller venues. On Friday, April 1st, they appeared at The Mill & Mine, a large, new performance space launched for this year’s Big Ears lineup. That night the house wasn’t close to filling its 20,000 square feet. But this was the prize. With fewer people in the space, the evening felt intimate, personal, open.
Butler and Maraire scrambled to set up their gear and soundcheck as the previous performers (Jamal Moss of Hieroglyphic Being and Marshall Allen, band leader of the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra) packed away their gear.
Butler was eager to punch it, and when he did, the music spooled out, a loud and liquid sound that swept the entire audience into subconscious motion, flowing through a selection of songs including those from the band’s revelatory “Lese Majesty” (SubPop, 2014). Even the harried festival press, who usually sprint from venue to venue to capture their digital bits for voracious online music-press masters, plunged into the Shabazz evening. Official videographers collecting footage for a Big Ears documentary set up their cameras on tripods, quickly sighted in on their subjects, then let go of their gear so they too could move in the rising sound storm. Everyone in the place was moving. It was impossible not to.
The closest approximation to the thick, live Shabazz sound can only be found on vinyl, played loud. Digital is too shimmery, with too much emphasis on thin, shiny surfaces. The live Shabazz sound is a muscular, living thing. Their live sound interacts with the audience in a physical way. Throw away your labels or intellectual understanding of music. Whatever you feel, however you try to explain the heavy sound rising all around you, you’ll be right.