A Hip-Hop-Filled Friday at The Bowery Ballroom

April 29th, 2013

Shabazz Palaces/THEESatisfaction – The Bowery Ballroom – April 26, 2013

I’ll admit it: I have a bias against bands that use prerecorded backing tracks at shows. I know that it’s a tough time for musicians. And I know that backing tracks are much cheaper than touring with a full band. But in my mind there’s something inherently wrong about replacing a human with a machine. It just seems fake to me. And it’s not as exciting as seeing a real person, who, at any moment, can make a mistake—or transcend any perceived boundaries and amaze everyone. Which is why I don’t go to a lot of hip-hop shows. Very few rappers perform with bands, and my stubbornness in my beliefs colors my judgment even as I consider shows to attend. But I couldn’t miss THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces at The Bowery Ballroom on Friday night.

The two Seattle duos create some of the most interesting hip-hop music today, and, backing tracks be damned, I was going to go see that happen live. And I’m glad I did. Rapper Stas Iron and singer Cat Harris-White, performing as THEESatisfaction, hit the stage first, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band perform with more confidence. They used their laid-back, soulful beats from last year’s debut, awE naturalE, as a launching pad for the perfect interplay between Iron’s on-point rhythm and Harris-White’s smooth melodies. And they delighted the audience with some charming choreography.

That set served as a perfect warm-up for the headliners. On paper, Shabazz Palaces are intriguing: The group features former Digable Planets member Ishmael Butler (Palaceer Lazaro) and multi-instrumentalist Baba Maraire, the son of African drumming legend Dumisani Maraire. On wax, the band is immersive: The music is lush and contemplative. But onstage, the band is electric: They transformed the enveloping beats of their three records into hard-hitting jams. Butler is a force to be reckoned with on the microphone, both with his lyrics and flow. He commanded the crowd’s attention with his high voice, which perfectly cut through the thick backing tracks. Maraire never stopped playing something percussive, and he didn’t discriminate, cycling through a hi-hat, electronic drum pads and African shakers. Of course, all of this happened over a backing track. But as much as the devil on my shoulder tried to get me to hate on the show, THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces finally let me break through my biases. —Alex Kapelman