BADBADNOTGOOD are, basically, a perfect band. The Toronto jazz-hop trio’s greatest asset – besides their obviously astronomical talent – is an unassailable cool that only comes to those who seriously have their shit together on every level. Every single aspect of BBNG is, regardless of how you may feel about the music itself, undeniably intelligent. They’re one of those rare groups that seem to have arrived with their entire aesthetic fully formed, and the result is a seamless, confident presentation that subsequently makes them the kind of band that is very easy to become enamored with the idea of as much as the actual music that they produce. It’s hard to look at their aesthetically unified album art and videos and not think of groups like The Smiths or Black Flag or The Wu-Tang Clan, all of whom also had the balls to try something more or less unprecedented and the savvy to package it in a way that suggests either an artistic vision of astounding clarity and consistency or a fairly comprehensive understanding of how branding works (or both). And just like Morrissey, Henry Rollins, and The RZA, BBNG understand the importance of politicking. Every truly great band campaigns on some kind of platform, and BADBADNOTGOOD have chosen a reliable favourite of the voting public: out with the old, in with the new. They’re really into the possibility of their own youth, going so far as to post the message “NO ONE ABOVE THE AGE OF 21 WAS INVOLVED IN THE MAKING OF THIS ALBUM” alongside one of their releases on their website; this has been interpreted as arrogance by some – and it totally might be just that – but if you take five minutes to internalize the influences that they wear on their sleeve, it really seems to be coming from a more Lil B-like place of positivity and pride in accomplishment. They’ve also caused a couple of small controversies in the media due to a handful of less-than-reverent remarks in interviews about the staid nature of the modern jazz community and its tendency to over-worship the past; nothing too rude and nothing they didn’t eventually apologize for later, but in the eyes of the conservative, highly professional world of traditional jazz musicians, this equated to a gang of young thugs shooting up their tea party, leaving behind nothing but hysterical, impregnated jazz-wives and the lingering stench of fecal matter. And of course, the overly defensive reaction to BBNG’s vaguely threatening subversiveness only proves that they’re right. So, you know, fuck Giant Steps. Get based.
In the time since they initially surfaced last spring with a video of them performing a medley of Odd Future songs, their profile has steadily increased and hit a serious high in recent months with their backing up of Frank Ocean at Coachella and the rumours of a recorded collaboration with Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt (which have been confirmed as true). And just before that, they released their second studio album BBNG2 – available for free download on their website along with their first studio album and two live albums – which is the best thing they’ve put out so far, half of which is original material that more then holds up next to the revisionary hip-hop covers that they initially garnered attention for in the first place. While their earlier releases made their biggest impression through their sheer novelty and cleverness, BBNG2 is the sound of a band coming into its own, and then some. The covers are more radically rearranged, the originals have an endlessly replayable depth – just try to not listen to “UWM” an unhealthy number of times – and it all sounds gorgeous. The thing is a goddamn masterstroke; it’s positively frightening just how deep into your blood it can get after just a handful of listens.
Seeing as how they had not played a Toronto show since BBNG2‘s release, Thursday night’s showcase at The Hoxton served as a kind of homecoming/release party for the band, and fuck, what a party. The whole place just fucking tingled with anticipation. Granted, this might have just been me; BBNG are pretty intensely hip simply by nature of what they do and they attracted an intensely hip crowd, and the intensely hip don’t have a tendency to tingle. But what can I say: in case the last couple paragraphs didn’t tip you off, I’m a fan, alright? So fuck it, Brian doesn’t pay me to be cool.* I’m gonna fucking tingle, bitch.
My point is that there was definitely something in the air.
Having kept track of them obsessively since that first video appeared, I knew some things about BBNG shows. I had seen some footage of them performing at The Drake, and it was exciting stuff. In the videos, the band has a genuinely exciting energy that wasn’t always apparent on their more low-key first album, with the crowd beginning to mosh – again, this is a jazz show we are talking about – whenever they really begin to cook. And they also revealed a great sense for knowing exactly what surprise covers to bust out at the precise moment in the ridiculously sped-up timeline of modern popular culture that the song in question is at its most relevant (ie. when they did “Peso” last winter just as the internet was shitting itself over LIVELOVEA$AP, or doing “Niggas In Paris” right when it had become one of those songs that absolutely everybody fucking loves and just before it became one of those songs that everyone prefers to remember loving). All of this stuff happened on Thursday night at The Hoxton. Goddamn, did it ever.
BADBADNOTGOOD did two sets – one at 11:00 PM and one at 1:00 AM – and killed every second of both of them. If you’re wondering how well an idea like instrumental hip-hop with long passages of improvised jazz soloing comes across in a live setting, the answer is: “Very, very well”. A lot of this is due to the fact that these guys really know how to put on and pace a real show; their live set-up is extremely bare bones, exactly as it should be, but there’s a very strong sense of theatricality that comes across. Is there a better way to start a show than by playing Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard In Da Paint”? Is there a better way to start ANYTHING than with “Hard In Da Paint”? No. Was the chorus of “Flashing Lights” ever meant to be heard as anything besides a beautiful, crashing, set-closing elegy? No. Has there ever been a better idea for a hype man than the wildly flailing mute in a lion suit known as Heavy Da Lion? No. The BADBADNOTGOODs know these things, even though you might not. They’ll prove it to you. They’re very smart guys.
They can play too. Chester Hansen on bass, rolling with more power and funk than he lets on visually; he is the least animated member of the group, though he is given to letting loose with occasional spasms of unmistakable ecstasy that are fun to watch him have. He is the indispensable foundation, as bass players tend to be; his lines have a stoic thump, but a great sense of melody to them as well – it’s some tasty shit. Then there’s Matt Tavares on keys, rocking back and forth on his bench when things start to lock and spiral, rarely breaking eye contact with the others as he plays. But there is a star of BADBADNOTGOOD, and that’s their drummer, Alex Sowinski. He is the youngest member of the band and he serves as its unofficial mouthpiece/mascot, with that pig-mask of his figuring prominently in videos, publicity photos, and album-art. He’s also the only member with a microphone onstage, which, conscious decision on the part of the band or not, ties in perfectly with the group’s pro-youth ideology. He’s difficult to take your eyes off of, a baby-faced kid playing with the staggering technical ability of a natural prodigy and the reckless abandon of a hardcore punk. Taken all together, the band is like an overwhelming force of nature; at their best and most irresistibly exhilarating, they’ll start on some ominous, vaguely operatic theme and slowly build until the dam breaks, unleashing a dizzying, rapidly expanding black hole of euphoric post-bop.
Fleshing out their show even further, the band brought a couple of guests along to The Hoxton; besides the aforementioned Heavy Da Lion – who went seriously hard – they invited out their associate Leland Whitty, who played saxophone on a couple of songs from BBNG2, and his contributions were revelatory, to say the least. Every time he came onstage, the band seemed to step their game up even higher; all of a sudden, this mad, whirling hurricane has an anchor, a center of gravity that wails in anguish at the chaos that has come down around it.
The first set had an incredibly high energy throughout, full of big, evil bangers like “Hard In Da Paint” and “Earl”, eventually climaxing with a truly epic take on the relatively recently released G.O.O.D. Music collaborative track “Mercy” (which the crowd completely lost their shit over, right from that opening sample) and that ridiculously pretty version of Kanye’s “Flashing Lights”. The second set seemed to lean a little more toward the moodier, more groove-based material, at least it did until the end when, of course, they closed out the night with the new and improved BBNG2 version of the “Bastard/Lemonade” medley, whipping the whole place into a straight-up goddamn frenzy, while Heavy collapsed into fits of freakish convulsions and eventually threw himself into the now-moshing crowd.
After all these words, I’m sure you’re having a bit of trouble processing exactly what kind of a concert this is – I must admit, describing it isn’t easy, and I’m not sure how successful I’ve been. All I can say is that this is a great band that puts on a great show – one that is genuinely exciting, and you should check it all out for yourself if you haven’t already and try to disagree with me.
And besides: where else are you ever going to see a lion crowd-surf to a jazz trio playing Gucci Mane?
© Justin Santelli, Music Vice
* Actually, Brian doesn’t pay me, period, so there.
+++ I don’t pay anyone either, least of all myself, so don’t feel hard done by young Music Vice Jedi. Remember: you can’t spell indie without ‘poor’. 😉 – Brian Banks, Editor +++
Photographs of BADBADNOTGOOD at the Hoxton by Matthew Bowles:
Internet link: BadBadNotGood
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