Yes, Something Can Shine Brighter Than M.I.A.-Rye Rye
M.I.A. was robbed by a 16-year-old local girl named Ryeisha Berrain. We know: unthinkable. It wasn't a back-to-the-wall mugging, but more of a lose-sight-of-your-bag-and-it's-gone sort, the type of thing that happens after wandering into the wrong part of town without noticing. Last Friday, M.I.A. wasn't all there and someone else was: Baltimore's finest snatched-from-public-schools MC, Rye Rye.
Yes, we can hear the grumbling hordes already. How dare we speak ill-even the slightest bit-of pop music's current indie crossover darling, that Sri Lankan firebrand who yanked world music from the claws of adult-contemporary bore? We don't dispute that M.I.A deserves every shred of praise heaped upon her over the past year-air this fresh blows rarely through the hype circuit-but no one can argue that Maya Arulpragasam wasn't tired last Friday.
And no one could blame her either. Friday night was a scheduled day off on M.I.A.'s current whirlwind tour. Only two weeks ago local promoter TaxLo scored the coup of its existence (thus far), bringing into Baltimore a tour dominated by promotions juggernauts (such as Live Nation), and selling tickets at a cost that would have those juggernauts shaking their heads ($15 verses a tour average of $25). The show sold out-surprising many around town, including TaxLo, who, two weeks ago, sounded a little jittery about pulling the night off without choking on its shorts.
Yet, for a good portion of the night, a line of shivering, neon clad fans stood in a line that stretched from the club's front door on Saratoga almost all the way to City Hall. When we rolled up just after 10 p.m., the line hadn't even begun to move, and "Paper Planes" echoed out onto the street, the tail end of a soundcheck gone long. After ducking over to the Sidebar to warm up and check out, um, Brutal Dildo, the line-entertained by the dull thuds of a likewise sold-out Misfits show in Sonar's small-ish club room-was still lapping the curb of Lexington Avenue. (That's two block lengths if you're having trouble visualizing). Impressive, and the promoters handled it as well as could be.
The evening's second opener-we missed the first (see above)-was, fittingly, Blaqstarr, who produced a track on M.I.A's latest, explosive Kala. After walking onstage to calls of "we want Rye Rye"-who's been backing M.I.A. on tour-even he looked tired, possibly disinterested: The songs were there, but the energy flagged. ("Gon Break It Down" would still hit its mark if Blaqstarr was mumble-singing it in his sleep.) No amount of gold trim-from sunglasses on down-can hide disinterest; he wasn't singing to the room and the room could tell.
M.I.A. was less obvious. She's a born performer and you imagine her stage persona/energy/illusion-of-energy changing less night-by-night than her perfect outfits: Baltimore got white hot pants, a glimmering lycra bodysock, rhinestone-studded eye shadow, and Spring Break '84 sunglasses: a fully-formed party monster not quite of this world. You imagine a neon flashing, disco thumping mothership-tagged from wingtip to wingtip with DayGlo graf-waiting in the back of the club.
Her video backdrop-massive; shot from three projectors-is no less garish. Mostly. M.I.A.-a film school grad (no, she didn't grow up in the bush as many a fan likes to imagine)-introduced her set to a dark room with a few minute video clip of Asian dictator X speechifying on the virtues of fascism slash total control slash revolution. It progressed over the next hour and a half into a suitably hyperkinetic fluoro upchucks of much flashing, dancing, and digitized M.I.A. cut-outs.
M.I.A herself couldn't keep up. You didn't need to be in the front row-or the sweaty, dancing cluster closest to the stage-to see her panting at stageside. Save for a noble crowd surf and a few monitor rides, she mostly stayed in place.
It was more unexpected than (necessarily) disappointing. She can ride on the strength of her songs just fine. Opener "Bamboo Banger"-tense, accelerating production and the perfect "M.I.A. is coming back with that power, power" refrain-is all most show-goers needed for a positive verdict. The rumbling, banging "Pull Up the People" ("time to get political") off 2005's Arular likewise didn't disappoint; neither did "20 Dollar" which is simply the best reconsideration of the Pixies "Where is My Mind?" ever recorded.
But right in the middle of it all was "Shake it to the Ground," a Rye Rye-grinning wide under a shiny silver ball cap-rhyme and spare, soft-footed Blaqstarr cut that seeps good, earnest vibes that didn't have much to do with the set surrounding it, aside from a small crew of preteens dancing along onstage. At the back of the room you could feel the waters parting for her, and at the front you could see an M.I.A. who hadn't quite realized her show had been swiped.
That happened in the encore, when Rye Rye waved the show in front of her face with her own "Wassup Wassup," a sharp tongued rap that came off flawlessly. And finally, on the night's gunshot-lit "Paper Planes" closer, remixed now for a Rye Rye rap with a line that, if you caught it, defined the night: "I'm aiming for success/ I'm sorry if you los'."
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