Radioactive, Spearhead's beatboxer extraordinaire, took the mic at San Francisco's Boom Boom Room before the crew had finished removing the opening band's drum set. He held it until the bartenders told him it was time to go. For the two and a half hours in between, he led his new band, New Clear Vision, through an impressive variety of hip-hop, funk, soul, and acid jazz.

Radioactive at HSMF 2003
By Super Dee
Radio showed a vocal versatility to match the eclectic play list. From gymnastic beatboxing to soulful singing to prepared and freestyle raps, his voice was a powerful and well-honed instrument. Sometimes he sounded like a younger Biz Markie, sometimes like a rougher version of Mos Def, sometimes he hinted at Louie Armstrong's growling croon. His lyrics and style reminded me of Saul Williams' progressive, spiritual hip-hop. And he managed to pull off the MC cheerleading thing ("How you feeling tonight?" "What y'all doing in the back?" "When I say hey, you say ho!") without sounding cheesy or annoying.

New Clear Vision took the stage in degrees. While the crew readied the stage, Radioactive dove straight into a beat box that layered a big buzzing bass line on top of a hip-hop drum beat like a b-boy Tuvan throat singer. Then, with pantomimed hand gestures, he "scratched" and "transformed" his beatbox like a skilled turntablist. If you were in the back of the bar you might've thought there were two turntables on stage instead of one microphone.

During this first piece, Kevin Karnes (Broun Fellinis) sat down behind a minimalist drum kit: snare, high hat, and a small kick drum. No cymbals and no toms. The two of them jumped into a high-speed drums and beatbox duet with Karnes setting a tight, muscular beat and Radio complementing it with his own beats, "scratches," and other crazy sounds.

And then the rest of New Clear Vision took the stage: Michael Dipirro and Johnny Downer (Top Four Flights) on bass and guitar, and David Boyce (Broun Fellinis) on sax. Right away, Karnes and Dipirro locked together to form a crisp and energetic rhythm section. Occasionally, Karnes would use a digital drum pad and foot pedal to spice up the beat with digital sounds, key drum machine loops, or throw down a thunderous digital bass drum. But for the most part, he beat two hours worth of rich and varied rhythms out of just those two drums and his high hat.

Boyce and Downer seemed to still be feeling out their places in the band, which probably had a lot to do with Radio's dominance. Downer had a sweet tone and did a great job of filling out the sound with tasteful chords. His cool and stylish solos showed some serious chops and a delicate touch, but at times he seemed to lack drive and energy. Maybe he was trying not to step on any toes in the new band.

The first 45 minutes were tight and eclectic. Radio spit out well-written rhymes and the band followed with crisp playing. They moved smoothly from hip-hop to funk to jazz, all of which sounded like natural fits for the band, as opposed to a band trying to spice up their sound by playing outside their genre.

After the clock struck 12:00, things got looser and jammier. You could tell they were running out of material and still feeling out the band's improvisational dynamic. Some of the jams stuck to straight-ahead funk, while some took us to more psychedelic and far-flung spaces. A few got lost or ran out of steam, but the mixed results were what you'd expect from a band playing a two plus-hour set in its first public performance.

Boyce didn't seem fully comfortable in the tight, song-focused portion of the set. He sat out long portions of the songs, and a couple of times when Radio called on him, he answered with almost teasingly sparse and quiet lines. But when the band ran out of songs and voyaged out to freer confines, Boyce warmed up to his mournful, cerebral blowing that has been the signature of the Broun Fellinis for more than a decade.

When 2:00 a.m. came, the crowd had thinned, the bartenders had closed up shop, and the band's energy was starting to flag. But Radio was like a kid playing with his new toy that didn't want to hear it was bedtime. Throughout the show, the initially apathetic weekday crowd kept on responding to Radio's confidence and enthusiasm. He made us feel like we were all present for the humble but auspicious birth of something new and exciting. Hopefully New Clear Vision will get the chance to live up to that promise.

Jeremy Pollock
JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 3/15/04]

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