Saturday, June 14, 2008


Friday, June 13, 2008
Birmingham, Alabama

Even though we couldn't make Bonnaroo this year, we still managed to get out of town for one night of quality live music, including our perennial top 5 favorites Galactic, at City Stages Festival in Birmingham. We'd never heard of this festival before, but turns out that this was their 20th year! Who knew?

Unlike Bonnaroo or New Orleans Jazzfest or even Memphis's Beale Street Festival, City Stages is set up right in the middle of downtown. Seven stages and dozens of vendors (food, beer, etc) are set up throughout 9 city blocks.

We stayed at the Redmont Hotel - the reddish building in the distance on the right in the photo above. It was nice to be able to walk out of the hotel and be right across the street from the festival!

To be honest, though, we didn't find Birmingham to be anywhere near our top 50 places in the U.S. For one, much of downtown Birmingham is just plain decrepit. Large ugly abandoned buildings with faded and crumbling facades abound, and just a few blocks from the festival, the area has a feeling of worn down despair. Even worse, it's probably one of the least culturally progressive big cities we've been to.

What are all these people lined up for? Some kind of hillbilly grub? No, it's...

Just a few of the culinary specialties around these parts.

Decent food options were in short supply, and even though Bonnaroo and New Orleans were both only about 4-5 hours away, it was painfully obvious that we were not in either of those places.

Now that's what every music festival needs!

And what's going on here?

Gee, that looks fun.

I wonder how many miles a gallon that thing gets?

So despite the laughable vending scene, the festival was top-notch when it came to the main event - music. We spent most of the night at the large "Miller Lite" stage, where a good-sized crowd gathered in front of an excellent sound system.

First up for us was Galactic, always one of our favorites, featuring maestros Ben Ellman on sax and Stanton Moore on drums. Galactic's unique New Orleans blend of funk, rock, jazz, gypsy, hip-hop and heavy metal seems to always keep us coming back for more.

This particular performance was heavy on the hip-hop. As part of their ongoing promotion of their most recent CD From the Corner to the Block, a collaboration with over a dozen progressive-minded MCs, Galactic continues to team up with rap artists around the country. This time we got the inimitable Chali 2NA and his little brother Laidlaw.

Chali 2NA is somewhat of a legend in hip-hop, with his distinctive deep voice and his history of collaborating with all kinds of artists. He is a founding member of both Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli, and his politically activist and socially conscious lyrics endear him to fans all across the musical spectrum.

Unfortunately, Galactic was only given a one-hour slot, so we didn't get to hear much of the classic mind-bending instrumental stuff that defines the band. In fact, most of the instrumental songs were repeats from the Galactic show we saw a couple months ago in Oxford. Nevertheless, they put on a very solid performance that left no doubt about their abilities. Here's what they played:

Bongo the Dog
Sunday Araq
@ Comin' Thru
@ What's Golden
@ Lock Shit Down
Baker's Dozen
@ Think Back
@ Step Your Game Up ->
@ Get Focused ->
@ International

@ these songs had Chali 2NA and Laidlaw on vocals

And for the Galactic fans reading this, how many times have you ever seen Ben play a Kenny G sax? (soprano) This was during one of the hip-hop songs with Chali 2NA; fortunately he hasn't worked this sax into the rotation of regular Galactic songs yet!

We also got to see a couple of other performances, including the main man from Memphis, Citizen Cope. His real name is Clarence Greenwood, and he's become a favorite in the indie rock and college music scenes with his laid back vocals set to hip-hop and R&B tracks. Unfortunately, his slacker music comes across much better on CD in a living room on a Sunday afternoon than it does on a hot sweaty Friday night. Nevertheless he drew an enthusiastic crowd, including a guy next to us who repeatedly insisted on trying to crowd-surf...until he got dropped like a hot potato and probably bruised up his shoulder real good. (He just kind of stood there after that.)

The headliner for the night was the world-renowned Philadelphia-based activist hip-hop band, The Roots. Unlike most hip-hop bands, these guys don't use any samples, canned beats or other pre-recorded music. Everything they play is organic and live, and they are all top-notch! And yes, their bottom end consists of both a bass guitar (Owen Biddle) AND a tuba (Damon Bryson), not to mention an awesome drummer (?uestlove) and a talented percussionist (F Knuckles). Vocalist Black Thought is a pro as well, with his solid delivery and intelligent lyrics.

These guys put on a live show that no other hip-hop band we know of can match. Their energy is both ferocious and contagious, and by the time their set ended at 12:30, we were drenched in sweat and sore all over from dancing so hard!

To be honest, not everything The Roots play could truly be called hip-hop. True to their name, they delve into the roots of hip-hop, especially old-school funk. Their talented guitarist Captain Kirk often evoked the late P-Funk prodigy Eddie Hazel with his soulful and blistering solos.

Keyboardist Kamal led the band through a late-set medley of old-school hip-hop and funk - everything from James Brown to Salt 'N' Pepper, much to the delight of the mixed crowd in attendance.

Overall, we had a great time at the fest, thanks to Galactic and The Roots - two band we'd go see anywhere in the world!

Back to main page