Sage Francis Transcends Genres At House of Blues

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Sage Francis' new album Li(f)e should have received better reviews than it did. Although the reviews it got weren't terrible, none of them seemed to acknowledge that Sage managed to marry rap and rock without coming off as awkward white-boy nu-metal, maintaining a hip-hop vibe even while backed by an indie rock band with an impressive pedigree. This is no small feat, and Rocks Off couldn't help but wonder how it would translate to his live show. Were we about to see a hip-hop concert or a rock show?

Of course, anyone who has ascended the House of Blues elevator to the 3rd floor to step into the delicately labyrinthine Foundation Room won't be surprised to hear that at first, it felt like neither. The place was jam-packed with trendy urbanite jet-setters comparing expensive haircuts and aggressively not giving a fuck that two of the best MCs on the independent hip-hop circuit were about to play next door. Should one ever feel underdressed when walking into an establishment which claims to be a house of blues? Shuddering, we hurriedly made our way into the Bronze Peacock Room, which is a little more like your standard rock venue, but with better air conditioning and worse wall art. Seriously, we're not sure who this Reginald Mitchell person is, but his painting equipment needs to be revoked, by a judicial injunction if necessary.

The Free Moral Agents were courteously prompt, hitting the stage at almost exactly 8 o'clock. Their upbeat funk rock sound was instantly engaging, and distracted from the fact that we'd just paid $8 for a goddamn bottle of Shiner Bock. It takes a lot of balls to charge that much for a Shiner within the borders of Texas, but whatever. We'd been made aware that the Free Moral Agents would be Sage Francis' backing band for his current tour, and we were immediately relieved to discover that they were a unique and fantastic band.

Funk rock is a very difficult genre to get right; if you put too little energy into it, you sound like lite jazz, but if you put too much energy into it, you sound like a ska band. The Agents toed the line with ease, the drums and guitar adding sweet hot fire in all the right places, while the bass, keyboards, and mellow, staccato voice of the singer crooned and soothed. The singer, who didn't say much at first, sounded sort of halfway between Billie Holiday and Bjork. Strange, but true. Can we get these guys to come back with Janelle Monáe? Holy crap, that would be one funky-ass show.

B. Dolan came out next, and immediately connected with the audience on a personal level that the Free Moral Agents weren't really able to, mainly because their lead singer didn't seem prone to bouts of humorous, relaxed banter like Dolan did. Dolan adhered to the more traditional "one guy onstage rapping to a backing tape" hip hop dynamic, which, in the hands of less charismatic performers, sometimes gets boring, but Dolan didn't have that issue. He established a rapport with the crowd right away and rarely passed up an opportunity to goof around with us, a performing demeanor you might not guess would belong to someone whose albums tend to be dark, dramatic, and bizarre.

The tone was significantly lighter for his set, with Dolan's grinning visage softening the blow of savagely satiric lyrics like the ones that open "Joan of Arcadia" by describing Joan of Arc's wooden dildo named Jesus. Dolan dedicated that particular song to Sarah Palin.

The Free Moral Agents once again took the stage, joined in short order by Sage Francis in a goofy indie-rock wig and glasses, looking like what Rivers Cuomo should look like if his visage reflected Weezer's deteriorating quality as some kind of pop-rock Dorian Gray.

They belted straight into "Three Sheets to the Wind", Li(f)e's most upbeat and catchy jam, the crowd fully alert and chanting along. After the opening song, Sage apologized to those in the audience who thought they were coming to a hip hop show. "This is a rock show," he informed us, "even though it's at a House of Blues. But that's okay, this ain't really a house of blues. Let me put it this way: if this is a house of blues, I'm Bushwick Bill." Local name-drop. Nice.

Sage's work has always had a fiery indie-punk spirit, so the backing band was a seamless fit. If you've ever wondered why a hip-hop MC would want to take the stage with a live band, last night was an eye-opening experience for you. The power and chemistry of a live band cannot be denied, and Sage himself seemed energized by the dynamic. Which isn't to say it was all business; he did pause for a fake gospel revival during which Insane Clown Posse's "Miracles" was thoroughly lampooned.

Some of Sage's older songs were noticeably improved upon by addition of the live band, including "Hell of a Year" and "Crack Pipes", but unfortunately he didn't play much older stuff. A mere two tracks made it in from his debut, Personal Journals, and 2005's amazing A Healthy Distrust was represented by only "Sea Lion". While this may have been disappointing for some who aren't yet all that familiar with Sage's new album, most of us were perfectly content to sit back and let the man play what he wanted, and what he wanted to play was very nearly Li(f)e in its entirety.

The only unpleasantness came around halfway through the set, when a guy in a backwards Houston Texans cap who had been screaming for the same song all night finally got to Sage; the rapper snapped, aborted the intro to the next song, stalked over to the offending heckler, and got right in his face, shouting "You're drunk! Shut the fuck up! I was about to do that song, but now I will never play that song again, you understand me? Just shut the fuck up. Last time I was in Houston, I punched somebody out, and I really don't want to repeat that."

The crowd seemed to come down on Sage's side, and while it was an uncomfortable moment, it passed quickly as Sage launched into his next song, after which he admitted that he really did like Houston, and almost apologetically explained that since he's with a live band who have only had time to learn a certain number of songs, his set list for this tour tends to be very limited. Hell, it made sense to most of us. Even the guy in the Texans hat finally shut the fuck up.

Both Sage and B. Dolan plugged their corporate watchdog website knowmore.org, both bragged about having chased a Capital One booth out of the facility earlier, and both mentioned that Sarah Palin will be our next president in 2012, drawing jeers from the crowd. Sage's set in particular seemed to keep the audience on edge, with Sage alternately venturing into the audience to amiably mingle and venting the occasional frustration onstage. The agreeably contentious vibe served to keep the crowd on its toes, and added to the "what's gonna happen next?" feel of his set.

The build-up of tension followed by its release in hilarious moments like his suddenly belting out the chorus to Mr. Mister's "Broken Wings" could have been a tutorial for how to keep the audience paying attention.

After the show, Sage didn't return to the stage for an encore; however, he did hang out, pose for pictures, and talk to anyone who wanted to talk to him for a good long bit, while B. Dolan helped run the merch booth. We're still not sure if it was a rock show or a hip-hop show we saw last night, but we're content to never know, as long as Sage continues to offer such enthralling and energizing performances.

Set List:

  • Three Sheets to the Wind
  • Sea Lion
  • Specialist
  • Slow Man
  • Polterzeitgeist
  • Worry Not
  • Hell of a Year
  • I Was Zero
  • London Bridge
  • Broken Wings
  • Love the Lie
  • The Best of Times
  • Little Houdini

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