Raekwon and Ghostface Killah at Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto – Gig Review and Photos – NXNE

July 7, 2012
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Raekwon and Ghostface Killah at Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto, NXNE 2012 - photo Matthe Bowles, Music Vice

The Gig: Raekwon & Ghostface Killah, with Action Bronson, Killer Mike
Where: Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto, Canada
When: June 17, 2012
In One Word: Beautiful

Because the idea of NXNE as an “indie” festival is fairly entrenched, throughout the course of the week it can become difficult to remember that there is some music that isn’t played by scrawny men and pasty women with guitars and looping stations. So kudos to whoever thought that capping the festival with a free concert headlined by Raekwon and Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan was a good idea, because it really, really was.

As with all of the free Yonge-Dundas shows, a line-up of various forgettables were organized to occupy the stage in the hours leading up to the evening’s main event, but this show was different in that the two acts immediately preceding the headliner were Action Bronson and Killer Mike, so getting to the square early was not an option, but a straight-up imperative. Here we had a celebration of classic hip-hop, through and through: an unabashed old-school revivalist, a (relatively) underground veteran who’s just released the most unanimously acclaimed work of his career, and two of the biggest, most widely celebrated icons that hip-hop has ever produced. Was there ever a chance of this not being the best?

If you’re at all familiar with Action Bronson, you know what he sounds like: an old-school, dense flow – one that rightfully earns a lot of comparisons to Ghostface Killah himself – with which he explores a lot of ideas about hookers and food over crackly, vinyl-sourced soul and funk samples. It’s fun, fairly laid-back stuff, and Bronson himself has that kind of way about him; he took the Yonge-Dundas stage on Sunday night with a Solo cup and a big ol’ blunt, mostly cycling through cuts from his recent Blue Chips mixtape as he climbed up on the crowd barrier and mugged for cameras. Bronson’s got a great stage presence and he’s a lot of fun to watch, but unfortunately his music doesn’t seem to hold up in this kind of venue very well. It’s not the kind of hip-hop that’s built on hooks or brain-shifting beats; Bronson’s all about that old-school NY flow and while he’s extremely good at it, it’s the kind of thing that probably lends itself better to a dark club than a big free concert in a city square.

Killer Mike did not have that problem. Mike’s been going for over a decade now and he’s just recently released R.A.P. Music, widely acknowledged as the first album he’s made that fully realizes his undeniable talent for making music that is simultaneously overwhelmingly aggressive and engagingly cerebral. It’s that magnetic fury that makes him so badass, and a weird kind of elder-statesman seen-it-all levelheadedness that keeps him likable. And his music is incredibly well-suited for this kind of big-stage environment; the big bangers like “Reagan” and R.A.P. Music’s title track are real crowd-rousers, and Mike himself you just don’t want to take your eyes off of. In a way, it was the exact opposite of Action Bronson’s set: whereas Bronson keeps things so laidback and regular-dude it sometimes came off like he should have been performing for you in your living-room, Killer Mike seizes the opportunity of a big venue to make himself seem even bigger. And holy shit, this motherfucker can rap, by the way. I don’t think I caught a single vocal backing-track being played during his entire set, and he doesn’t need them. The man’s got a voice, and he never once dropped a syllable. Near the end of the set, he paused the show and instructed the crowd to follow where he was going to be pointing. Then he proceeded to freestyle a-cappella, every other bar or so pointing to one of the many billboards in and around Yonge-Dundas Square as he would incorporate a word or phrase from the ad into his seamless rhymes. And at that moment, I think my mind shit itself a little bit.

AND THEN: it was Wu-Time.

What is there to even say about Wu-Tang? It’s Wu-Tang. You either know them and love them or you’ve somehow managed to get this far in life without ever hearing 36 Chambers. They’re the kind of royalty act that’s been around long enough and made enough of an impact that they have several generations of fans. Hell, right beside me at the show was an entire family in Wu-Tang t-shirts. And the mom knew more of the words than I did.

Ok, so technically Raekwon and Ghostface are but a sliver of the whole Wu-Tang pie, but they are a particularly delicious sliver. These are the guys that made Only Made For Cuban Linx together! And Only Made For Cuban Linx, Pt. II! And many other good things separately, like Fishscale and that way-better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be Justin Bieber remix with Kanye West! “Rawwwwwww’ma give it to ya, wit’ no trivia”! “I go deep like a Navy seal”!* THAT’S THESE GUYS. And honestly, this was probably the best kind of Wu-Tang show I could imagine. You’re not going to hear “Incarcerated Scarfaces” at a U-God concert.

The set-list read like a hardcore fan’s dream, zigging and zagging between new material, deep-cuts, and classics from throughout the duo’s massive catalogue. But of course, the show came most alive whenever they dipped into material from that perfect, golden ‘93-’95 period. The show really kicked into high gear in its second half, where after a confusing mini-set interlude from local rapper JD Era (I guess there had to be a low point, and that was it) it just turned into awesome, all-time concert memory moment after awesome, all-time concert memory moment.

“Can It Be All So Simple”. “C.R.E.A.M.” “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”. It was a ridiculous embarrassment of riches, and it just kept going. Raekwon and Ghostface aren’t dicks; they know what the people want to hear. And speaking of not being dicks: one of the cooler displays of generosity I’ve seen at a big-name show came when they called up two lucky guys from the audience to fill in Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s and Method Man’s verses on “Protect Ya Neck” and put complete faith in them to follow through, as well as giving them ample room to wild the fuck out – just as you would have had you just found yourself onstage rapping with Raekwon and Ghostface.** There was a seemingly genuine lack of ego about the whole show; songs that didn’t even feature Ghostface and Rae on their recordings were performed, original verses intact. It wasn’t about pushing solo material onto a captive fanbase; they don’t need to do that. This was just a celebration of everything Wu. They even did “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, bringing out ODB’s teenage son to rap the first verse. And even though it turned out that the kid couldn’t keep up for shit and had a vaguely entitled air about him, it was kind of…sweet? I don’t know if that’s an adjective I’m supposed to use in a review of a Wu-Tang show, but that’s seriously how it felt. The whole night was just good vibes, everywhere, all the time.

The evening wound down with an address of the previous evening’s tragedy, the Radiohead stage collapse at Downsview Park where the band’s drum technician and close personal friend Scott Johnson was killed in an unfortunate freak accident. In dedication to Johnson, his family, and the others who were injured in the collapse, Raekwon and Ghostface led the crowd in a singalong of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”. And I have to tell you: shit was beautiful. I was supposed to be at that Radiohead show, along with what felt like half the city, and I don’t think it’s too presumptuous to say that there was a bit of a dark cloud hanging over a lot of us the day after. Getting fifteen thousand people to sing along to Marvin Gaye at a free concert the night after was exactly the kind of display of peace, love, and understanding that was desperately needed and appreciated.

After about two hours of non-stop fan-wish-fulfillment and those aforementioned surprising moments of genuinely affecting emotionality, right before launching into set-closer “Triumph” Raekwon said, “You know, this right here…We don’t get this shit in New York.” And I realized, he’s probably right. What NXNE manages to organize every year is a truly incredible citywide event that I doubt many other major cities could pull off without incident. And the fact that shows as incredible as this one can happen here – and for free, no less – is something very, very special. What’s more fun than shouting along to “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing To Fuck With” with fifteen thousand other people? Very few things I’d imagine. I got to do that. And it wouldn’t have happened without North By Northeast.

© Justin Santelli, Music Vice

* For years, I was certain that the line was actually “I go deep like a babysitter”, and it made me laugh every time because I just had no fucking clue what that could possibly mean.

** Interesting Sidenote: The guy from the audience who got to do Method Man’s verse was wearing a White Light/White Heat t-shirt. I just thought this was a really great example of how Wu-Tang are one of those acts that draw in people with all kinds of tastes, and that’s indisputably awesome.

Photos by Matthew Bowles:

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J. Francis

J. Francis is a freelance music critic that sprouted like an unsightly growth from the suburbs of the Greater Toronto Area and eventually ended up in Kingston, Ontario. He is a man of deliriously firm, contradictory convictions, with a life-long dream of dismantling high-art/low-art hierarchies. He loves pop music with a passion that many find unsettling and is often mistaken as being somehow ironic or insincere (nothing could be further from the truth). His favourite album is Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell. He knows that you think that's ridiculous. Regardless, he hopes you have a good day.

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