Friday Night: Aesop Rock at Fitzgerald's

Aesop Rock, Edison, Dark Time Sunshine Fitzgerald's August 10, 2012

It was a characteristically hot August night in the H on Friday, but I'd wager that no place was hotter than the upstairs room at Fitzgerald's. The club was crowded with sweating hip-hop heads anticipating hot rhymes, hot beats and maybe even a haircut or two from San Francisco's indie-rap icon Aesop Rock.

The bearded MC is rushing across the country these days performing and promoting Skelethon, the new album that finds him doing all of the writing, rhyming and production himself for the first time.

The assemblage at Fitz was anxious to hear the new songs live, but Aesop didn't come alone. Openers Dark Time Sunshine, featuring MC Onry Osbourne and DJ Zavala, warmed the crowd up by chilling them out. The duo's music is gentle and introspective -- headphones rap. The deep sound collages produced by Zavala had an almost ethereal quality, approaching something akin to new-age hip hop.

It wasn't quite trippy, and it wasn't quite danceable. Basically, it was rap you could do your homework to. The crowd seemed to dig it, obliging Osbourne's repeated commands to put their hands up "from the back."

A bigger buzz went through the room as the next act, Edison, set his gear up. Edison is an instrumental hip-hop artist who plays a 256-button minimalist music controller called a Monome. The audience, not quite sure what it was seeing, was mesmerized as Edison's fingers danced across the large keypad, lighting up buttons in sequence to create beats and clicking them off again.

It was certainly unlike any hip-hop performance I've ever seen; it didn't seem possible that so many sounds could be coming out of a small box that looked like Steve Wozniak put together in his garage.

As it turned out, the Monome was hooked up to a laptop with what I can only assume was a pretty badass soundcard. Edison kept the crowd engaged between songs with little observations from his life, from his frustration with San Francisco public transportation to disappointment that slick new Lego Star Wars sets weren't available when he was a child. Each time he started pressing buttons, the crowd was nearly spellbound. The amount of practice time it must take to memorize the precise patterns he punched into the machine has got to be outrageous.

Edison brought local rapper Evak onstage for a rap over his beats in a nice moment, but the real showstopper in the set was his last track, a beat battle between the Monome master and a former Houstonian, DJ Big Whiz -- Aesop's turntablist. It could have gone on a lot longer than it did without any complaints from the crowd.

After a quick break, Whiz was joined onstage by his partners in the rap group Hail Mary Mallon, MCs Rob Sonic and the one and only Aesop Rock. The relationship these three share is as much personal as it is professional, and the chemistry was apparent right off the bat as Aesop lit into his lashing "Leisureforce" flow from Skelethon.

Songs from the new record featured prominently in the show. The single "ZZZ Top" stood out in particular, with the kung fu-inspired music video playing on a screen behind the performers. Aesop Rock's rhymes are tighter and more intricate than most, but he made it look easy, never even considering flubbing a line.

Talented sideman Rob Sonic was with him every step of the way, and Big Whiz impressed on the decks the old-fashioned way, scratching and mixing real vinyl rather than CDs or audio files.

The energized audience hooted and hollered for more between each song. They were enthusiastic about the music -- maybe too enthusiastic. As has become a custom, one fearless audience member jumped onstage for one of the stranger crowd participation moments I can ever recall seeing.

"Anyone on this list is supposed to be ready to get a haircut by the best dudes and the worst barbers that I know," said Aesop Rock as he triumphantly held up a sheet of paper with a wicked glint in his eye.

A lucky fan, Javier Martinez, ended up with the worst haircut I've ever seen during the song "Racing Stripes." Osbourne and Rob Sonic just destroyed this kid's hair. He got a great story to tell his friends, no doubt, but... damn. Hope he had some clippers at home.

The room was getting hot as fuck really fast. The crowd bounced, nodded and waved as the trio tore into the Hail Mary Mallon track "Grubsteak." Aesop Rock is a strong performer, his act honed by a number of these cross-country treks.

While the crowd seemed to tire out a bit after midnight, the rapper appeared to get stronger as he got sweatier (did I mention the heat?). He wasn't afraid to share the spotlight with his compadres, either: Both Rob Sonic and DJ Big Whiz got their own solo features during the set.

The Skelethon stuff, including "Fryerstarter" and "Gopher Guts," was well received by a happy, appreciative audience, but the camera phones really went up during the older cuts with which Aesop closed the show. "Big Bang" and "Daylight/Nightlight" sent 'em home happy, with the latter including something of a mission statement for the rapper's wordy deconstructions: "All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day, put the pieces back together my way."

Every piece was in its proper place on Friday. If you missed the show, you're in luck -- Aesop promised to be back through town soon. Slowing down, it seems, simply isn't an option for this guy.

Personal Bias: I typically prefer hip hop of the slowed and thowed variety, but I couldn't help but leave impressed by the talent on this tour.

The Crowd: Bearded white guys, mostly.

Overheard In the Crowd: Not much. It was a thoughtful, respectful bunch, for the most part.

Random Notebook Dump: "I never had a Lego lightsaber as a kid," Edison said glumly. "Can you imagine stepping on one of those with your bare feet?" Much wincing.

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