Photos by Kris Ex
"So, you here for GZA?"
That's what the guy next to me at the bar awkwardly asks. Initially it seems like an odd question, because, well, umm, he's the night's only advertised act. But throughout the evening, a pattern emergesl. The same question is asked by him, to him, by others, always with the same wariness.
It soon becomes apparent that coming to a show where Wu-Tang Clan's GZA is set to perform Liquid Swords, his 13-year-old masterpiece, in its entirety is pretty much like going to a 12-Step meeting: the only thing you can be sure that you have in common with anyone else is why you're there; you're probably feeling otherwise isolated and ostracized; and if you want to connect to another soul, it's best to start with why you're there.
There's the Latino kid in Chuck Taylors and Dickies who just picked up the album two years ago, realized what he was missing and wonders aloud if other members of the Clan will appear; the full-bearded red-headed guy with a pretty boss Wu-Tang T-shirt, complaining about the T-shirt prices at live venues, who rates the Roots' Things Fall Apart as the best rap record evar; the graffiti artist from Southwest Houston who wants to "keep hip-hop alive" but is dismayed because high gas prices keep him from tagging up the whole city; the dead ringer for one of the Good Charlotte twins. There's a guy with a blue wig. There are a few women, not many. Young girls, mostly.
The side stage of Warehouse is pretty unpopulated. One of the opening acts is HISD (Hueston Independent Spit District), a four man hip-hop troupe in the vein of Jurassic 5. They choreograph moves with old school leanings, lively performing to a crowd sparse enough to support multiple break-dance circles.
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After music is piped in through the house system (nothing but the safest hip-hop hits, of course), out comes Houston's own E.K. Band, fronted by Elliott-Real-Ness (get it?), part Black Thought, part Wyclef, but not as captivating as that makes it sound. When he requests lighters in the air for smokers, all of one comes up; after more baiting, a half dozen flames appear. The band has five players, plus three back up singers, including Kuniko, an Asian songstress who belts eyebrow-raising covers of Erykah Badu's "On & On" and Groove Theory's "Tell Me." (Someone give her a solo deal, quick.)
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After a third opening set, this one by argyle Wallabee Clarks-wearing Wu affiliate Killah Priest, a narrative sample from Shogun Assassin, the jidaieki (Japanese period drama) that frames Liquid Swords, plays. Ws are thrown in the air as the small crowd swarms to the front of the stage. (No, this is not nerdy at all.)
As GZA emerges dressed in a plain white tee, jeans and Air Jordan sneakers and begins the title track from the album, his mic is too low to be heard. No matter. He has an audience of supporting vocalists, who recite every word aloud. Inspectah Deck too busy to show up for "Duel of the Iron Mic" and "Cold World"? Not a problem.
GZA has always come across as a natural thinker; a guy who actually sits and concocts dense metaphors because he enjoys the process more than anything else. Onstage, he's low on movement, all rhymes, happy that his decade-plus-old thoughts still resonate and determined to get them all out.
As part of his post-Swords set, GZA runs through all corners of his canon, his lines all sharp slurs and crisp mumbles coming and coming and coming. At one point, he stops, sufficiently mesmerized by the amount of smoke and pungent aroma coming from one side of the stage. Astonished by the reception he's getting, he smiles: "Y'all kinda live in here tonight. For the amount of people, it sounds like triple." - Kris Ex