Much like during the Doomtree Blowout Week, fans had a chance to watch Brother Ali played to a small, rapt audience at First Avenue’s 7th St. Entry last night, but this time he came backed by a brand-new band called Blank Tape Beloved. As Ali mentioned on a few different occasions throughout the night, it was the first time Twin Cities’ fans had a chance to hear him perform with the new group, and only their fourth time performing together in public.
Ali met his new bandleader, Jordan Katz, while on tour with Ghostface Killah and Rakim a few years back, and Katz has assembled a fine collection of players to add soul and brass band flourishes to Ali’s tunes. At one point Ali expressed some trepidation about switching to a live band set-up, recalling the first time Slug performed with a band back in 2003 when he was holding down a seven-night residency in the same space and how he said the experience terrified him. “There’s a lot of sh*t that could go wrong,” Ali laughed, but the band proved to be a sturdy support system for Ali’s rhymes.
The set started with a few familiar tunes, and as soon as the band was warmed up they started delving into the new material off Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, which Ali says represents the complex emotions he’s experienced witnessing this “very new and electrifying time.” And who better to opine on the state of the union and other current events than Ali, who said that his spiritual mentor proclaimed him an Imam, or Muslim leader, at the tender age of 19. “You’ve got the words of a street person and the spirit of someone beautiful,” Ali was told, and that balance of populist language and eloquent, informed dialog is present in his new work more than ever.
Few artists can roll terms like “sub-prime mortgage” and “welfare” into lively narratives about the human condition, but Ali did just that on uplifting songs like “It’s My Life.” Even when he did go into more personal details, like on a track where he described learning about the deaths of his father and Eyedea, he still ended with a big-picture look at where he fits into the greater community. His writings have gradually shifted away from introspective, internal struggles toward evaluating the world around him, and Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color is set to be his most culturally aware and politically evocative record yet.
Toward the end of his set Ali paused to address the crowd with what could only be described as a sermon, and it was at that point that I set down my notebook and pen and let his words sink in. It was hard not to be moved by his summary of the last few years of loss and newfound inspiration, and as he described the real-life implications of the Occupy movement on Twin Cities homeowners and rallied the crowd to follow him to Madison today for a demonstration and concert, it felt less like he was making a political statement and more like he was simply injecting some thoughfulness into our increasingly divided public dialog. If Ali were to run for office he would likely need to form his own party, as he excels at speaking for the common citizen and communicating on a very human level.
Room With A View
Whatcha Got/I Ain’t No Joke (Rakim)
New Song: Only Life I Know
Uncle Sam Goddamn
New Song: Dreaming In Color
New Song: Fragile
New Song: A Letter To My Countrymen
Take Me Home