By: Jim Welte
Mos Def & Hercules and Love Affair :: 10.03.08 :: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts :: San Francisco, CA
Regardless of who comes out on top on November 4th, The New Party is one of this election season's big winners. The fictional coalition, conjured up as the political theme for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' 2008 gala benefit in San Francisco, served up live sets by one of the hottest bands in dance music: Hercules and Love Affair, and one of hip-hop's most enigmatic wordsmiths: Mos Def.
Attendees of the pricey gala, which featured free booze and tasty eats from an array of the Bay Area's top restaurants, were greeted by would-be protesters chanting comical slogans like, "What do we want? Stilettos! When do we want them? Tomorrow!" while cardboard cutouts of the real political parties' leading lights adorned the entrance. The downtown performance space was festooned with all manner of red, white and blue décor - this was the victory party without the election.
Yerba Buena's pick of Hercules and Love Affair was pitch perfect. Sure, the electro-disco outfit has loads of buzz right now and is a sure-fire party-starter, but its motley cast also matched a gala at which hip socialites mixed with towering Uncle Samanthas and a joyous contingent of mostly male cheerleaders and drag queens dressed in combat gear.
Led by clean-cut producer/beat wizard Andy Butler, the New York City-based octet included a troupe whose real-world diversity towered over that of the Real World and its spawn. Butler, clearly a connoisseur of '70s disco, and the new wave and Chicago house scenes that followed it, was the centerpiece, having written all of the songs and most of the lyrics. He chose the band name for the Greek mythological character Hercules' reported proclivity for both male and female lovers.
Behind a bank of keyboards and beat machines, Butler controlled the show from the back of the stage, flanked by a frenetic rhythm section of bass and drums, along with a second keyboardist and a pair of horn players who littered each track with dazzling trombone and trumpet stabs throughout the night. The music didn't vary wildly, but like his fellow DFA Records brethren James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) and Tim Goldsworthy, Butler showed an ability to infuse the four-to-the-floor rhythms with crafty songwriting. Every track was packed with hooks and choruses, but there were also shining bridges between them and plenty of unexpected bends and twists.
It was the group's pair of singers that really set the stage ablaze, in very different ways. Transsexual sex bomb Nomi Ruiz cut an imposing figure, as would any tall, slinky singer in stilettos and a short, shimmery cocktail dress. As she writhed about the stage, she sang in breathy, dramatic tones, crooning her own verses and filling in for acclaimed singer Antony Hegarty (Antony & The Johnsons), who sang on five of the ten tracks on Hercules' self-titled debut but isn't accompanying the band on tour.
Then there was Kim Ann Foxman, a diminutive lesbian who sported a shelf haircut reminiscent of The Cocteau Twins, one of '80s groups Butler most often cites as an influence on his songwriting. Wearing an oversized t-shirt and vest, she offered a tomboy answer to Nomi's glamour, and her soft, nasally voice provided a fine counterpunch.
The set was a nonstop, 50-minute dance party, although there was more to it than that if you paid attention. The highlights were obvious, as "Blind," possibly the year's best dance track, anchored the set with Nomi subbing for Antony's trademark quavering tone. One of the set's final tracks, "Hercules' Theme," was also its most varied, tossing in some wah-wah funk and chants to Hercules himself. They could have skipped their brief, listless cover of Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," however.
The room was on fire as Hercules and Love Affair departed, but it was up to a solid set from DJ Halo to keep everyone engaged for the next 90-minutes before the headliner took the stage. It's a shame to bury Mos Def's set all the way down here, but the supremely talented lyricist, whose Black on Both Sides (1999) is one of the top hip-hop albums from any solo artist of the past fifteen years, continued on his wayward path of delivering ragged live shows. While the beat never stopped during Hercules' set, the headliner didn't even seem to know which beats he wanted.
At one point, the crowd waited as Mos handed one of his DJs a CDR of a beat from Stones Throw producer Oh No, a fantastic jazzy percussion track but probably something he could have done before a $125-per-ticket event had entered its fourth hour. He enjoyed his performance of "Auditorium," a Madlib-produced, Indian-tinged track from his forthcoming album, The Ecstatic, so much that he decided to perform it twice. These actions don't befit a truly creative, multi-talented artist like Mos Def.
Tracks from Both Sides, particularly "Ms. Fat Booty," sparked up the room as the set wound down, but it was a disappointing close to what had been a remarkable night for The New Party and its devotees.
Hercules and Love Affair's next show is on 10/17 in Chicago, tour dates available here.
JamBase | The Bay
Go See Live Music!