Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.
When I told a friend that I was going to see Talib Kweli at Le Poisson Rouge on Memorial Day he texted back: “Why? Are you a college student in 1997?” The answer to that question is: I wish. Or more accurately: If you’re stuck in the City over Memorial Day weekend a switch automatically gets flipped and you revert to the arrested collegiate behavior of decades past. Especially this year. It went from coyly warm to sweltering in about fourteen seconds in New York City, and the populace doesn’t seem to be handling it well. I’ve seen a lot of tube tops. And men in public in those long pajama skater shorts. And as I walked down Bleeker Street on my way to the club I saw three different couples indiscriminately groping each other outside of two different American Apparel stores!
“Kweli seemed to recognize that he had before him a group of survivors, fans who’d made it through a debauched long weekend and were still standing.”
The club was rife with that soft-boiled sultry energy as well. The name translates to “the red fish,” but if you pretend you don’t know that, it sounds like a sexy place. And it certainly has the feel of a mildly downtrodden burlesque club, with a boudoir-ish floral print painted on the deep red walls. I was wondering what happened to all those ‘90s girls who got neck tattoos and didn’t shave. Now I know they’re still around, we’ve just been hanging out in different places. But it wasn’t just politically motivated liberal arts grads who turned up. Kweli has been in the game for nearly two decades and he’s amassed a fanbase as diverse as his impressive catalogue. My favorite contingent was the super-excited gay boy dancers, who showed up in Air Jordans, cut offs and Johnny Weir-style off-the-shoulder peasant tops and sang every word.
It’s a cliché about hip-hop shows that they never start on time. Like most clichés, this one is true. Water-logged on an excess of club soda (I celebrate Memorial Day by taking a break from liver abuse) I sat on the leather couch in the hallway right outside the door to the main room and people watched pre-show. If you’re ever stuck waiting for a rock show to start, and you keep seeing signs of life but aren’t sure how to read them here are some tips: The first thing that happens is the artist makes a brief appearance to greet his celebrity fans. Comedian Wyatt Cenac was loitering in the hallway as well and Kweli appeared just long enough to tell him he’s his biggest fan. “Anyone who worked on King of the Hill is amazing,” he said, dapper and early summery in a neat white button down, fedora, and pocked square, before ducking backstage. Next step: The DJ and other onstage personnel show up with assorted computers and giant extension cords and extra microphones. Next, a bunch of slow-moving dudes in sunglasses emerge from backstage highballs in one hand, Heinekens in the other, bringing with them the acrid smell of really fresh weed. Then the artist comes out, hugs the members of the opening bands and takes photos before heading to the stage. But that’s not when you get up. You wait until you see the inevitable flock of hot, pouty girls in tight dresses and heels emerge from the club’s corridors and situate themselves stage-side. When the girls think it’s go time you know it’s actually go time.
“I would not be where I am without the Beastie Boys taking me on tour,” Kweli said after sampling “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” in his opener. “We dedicate this show to the legendary MCA.” I later asked Kweli about Adam Yauch’s passing. “Adam was the leader of the Beastie Boys, and one of the most gracious and humble human beings I had ever met,” he told me. “He had a laser-like focus on art and compassion.” In the mid 2000s the Beasties included Kweli on their “Challah at Your Boy” tour, which he said changed his life: “I got to see true musicianship up close.”
The show could have taken on a maudlin pallor after his opening dedication, but it didn’t. Kweli seemed to recognize that he had before him a group of survivors, fans who’d made it through a debauched long weekend and were still standing, but also fans who’d been appreciating hip-hop and its various evolutions for a couple of decades now. “Oh we went to the beach, got sunburned, then did a bunch of drugs,” the fratty guy in front of me who was wearing a backpack indoors said to his friend when asked what he’d been up to earlier in the weekend. “And now we’re seeing Kweli! Summer is the bomb. Want another drink?”