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Posts Tagged ‘Hearts of Darkness’

(Above: Neil Young preaches and sings his only No. 1 hit at Farm Aid 26 in Kansas City, Kan.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record 

Several years ago and less than a quarter mile from the gigantic Farm Aid stage at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., Willie Nelson welcomed Bob Dylan onto the stage. It wasn’t that big of a surprise – the pair was playing minor league ballparks together for the first time that summer – but it was incredible to watch the two titans collaborate.

Despite Farm Aid’s star power, Saturday’s nearly 11-hour musical marathon/fundraiser didn’t feature any similar big-name collaborations but that’s about the biggest disappointment that could be leveled at the day.

The first of 16 artists went onstage at 1 p.m., but it wasn’t until Hearts of Darkness, Kansas City’s Afro-beat ensemble, came out a half hour later that the stadium started feeling less like a dress rehearsal and more like a concert.

The first half of the day was heavy on folkies and country music legends. Ray Price, 85, looked frail, but his deep baritone voice is immortal. His delivery on songs like “For the Good Times” and “City Lights” still pack the same emotional punch as it did when they were recorded nearly 40 years ago. Billy Joe Shaver proved to be spry at 71 as he hooted and scooted his way through “Wacko from Waco,” “Georgia on a Fast Train” and “Honky-Tonk Heroes.” It would have been great to witness either Shaver or Price duet with Nelson – Price and Nelson have recorded a handful of albums together – but with mid-afternoon sets, the two were likely well-settled in their hotel rooms by the time Nelson ended the day several hours later.

Robert Francis and British actress Rebecca Pigeon (the only female performer on the bill) each delivered 30-minute sets of fine folk music, but the only performance that stood out was Francis’ cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”

The final acts before the headliners could have filed under nepotism, but provided some of the daytime’s strongest moments. With a singing voice eerily similar to his dad’s, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real married Texas blues with the Allman Brothers Band’s Southern boogie. Backed by former Wallflowers pianist Rami Jaffee, Jakob Dylan delivered several of his old band’s biggest hits, including “Sixth Avenue Heartache,” “Sleepwalker” and “One Headlight.” At times, the pairing of Dylan and Jaffee recalled Tom Petty’s more delicate work with Heartbreakers ivoryman Benmont Tench.

The unfortunate dud in this stretch came unexpectedly from Jamey Johnson, who despite getting an assist from Lukas Nelson and a solid six-piece band filled his time with too many mid-tempo numbers that failed to ignite both onstage and in the crowd.

Taking the stage shortly before 7 p.m., Mraz faced the biggest crowd of the day so far and drew more applause than any of the preceding acts.  Mraz got an assist delivering his bouncy acoustic folk/pop from longtime friend Toca Rivera on percussion and backing vocals. Their jazzy version of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (a.k.a. Mr. Roger’s theme song) drew a big reaction.

Several of his songs fit well with the day’s themes. Mraz said he wrote “Frank D. Fixer” for Farm Aid about the first farmer he knew, his grandpa. The second verse, ending with the line “what happened to the family farm?” was especially poignant.

Primed by Mraz, Dave Matthews fans were more than ready for their hero. Matthews – with help from guitarist Tim Reynolds – didn’t disappoint. His 45-minute set was packed with sing-alongs “Crush,” “Where Are You Going?” and the set-closing “Dancing Nancies.”

The crowd was ready for more singing when John Mellencamp emerged with his five-piece band, but Mellencamp played on his own terms. Detours through “Walk Tall,” “Death Letter Blues” and “If I Die Sudden” confused an assembly clamoring for the hits, but they were ultimately rewarded with a spectacular performance of “Check It Out” along with Farm Aid anthem “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Small Town” and “Pink Houses.” A quiet reading of “Jackie Brown” performed only by Mellencamp and violinist Miriam Sturm was another highlight.

Neil Young needed only a harmonica and acoustic guitar to take the title of the day’s best set. He only played six songs, but the first three were a murder’s row of favorites: “Comes A Time,” “Sugar Mountain” and “Long May You Run.” Attention spans may have wandered during Young’s sermons against corporate farms and a pair of songs from last year’s excellent “Le Noise,” but he easily won the audience back with the opening chords of “Heart of Gold.” This was the fourth time I’ve seen Young but my first with him in coffeehouse mold. Experiencing  these songs in such an intimate way was powerful and emotional, leaving me with goosebumps and a lump in my throat.

After Young’s transcendental set anything would be anti-climatic, and Willie Nelson drew the short straw for ending the day. While neither Mellencamp nor Young emerged beyond their appointed times, Nelson worked the stage all day, opening the concert, accepting checks and thanking people. Understandably fatigued, Nelson’s set was light on his biggest songs – “Whiskey River,” “Still is Still Moving” and “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” were the only chestnuts delivered.

He turned the mic over to his son for a blistering version of “Texas Flood” and the family tribute “Fathers and Mothers.” Blessed with a second wind, Willie Nelson serenaded the host city with “Kansas City.” Several backing musicians from the previous bands came back out to help with a trio of gospel numbers that wove through “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light” before ending bizarrely on “Roll Me Up,” a brand new Nelson song with the refrain “roll me up and smoke me when I die.” The subject was incongruous, but the music stayed in the same jubilant spirit.

Nelson’s herb of choice may not be a crop farmers can plant, but it was fitting end to a day focused on agriculture.

Keep reading:

Review: John Mellencamp

Review: Jamey Johnson

“Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski

 

Review: “Neil Young – Long May You Run: The Illustrated History”

 

 

 

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 (Above: Hearts of Darkness are one of the biggest bands in Kansas City and a tough act to follow.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

As a live entertainment, hip hop has a bad rap (sorry). The genre’s main criticism – no one’s actually playing instruments – becomes especially acute onstage. While great MCs can deliver a stirring performance backed only by a DJ, the two-turntables-and-a-microphone set-up is the hip hop equivalent of going unplugged. The safety nets are removed and the MC’s skills (or lack thereof) are on full display.

Although he has brought a live band the past several times he’s come to Kansas City, Snoop Dogg decided to forgo live instrumentation for his performance Tuesday night at Crossroads KC. Backed by a DJ, trio of dancers, two hype men and three gentlemen whose job it seemed was to hang out onstage, Snoop delivered lethargic readings of his most celebrated hits.

Ironically, Snoop undermined his set by making fans wait more than an hour by listening to a playlist from his catalog. The rap stars belated appearance seemed almost superfluous in context. After listening to pre-recorded versions of his music for so long, having authentic vocals over more pre-recorded tracks didn’t seem that special anymore.

Stage problems also hampered the evening. During the first song, “I Wanna Rock,” the lighting rig gradually started lowering in front of the stage. Unfazed, Snoop and his ensemble continued to perform, nearly obscured. When it happened a second time, however, Snoop stopped the show and addressed the stage manager.

“Why does this (stuff) always happen when Snoop Dogg come on?” he asked.

A spate of hits, including “P.I.M.P.” and “Gin and Juice” got the crowd dancing, but the performance seemed like high-spectacle karaoke or an infomercial with a great chorus. With his DJ doing nothing more than cuing backing tracks and shouting over the songs, Snoop would have been better served dumping the entourage and hiring a live rhythm section to breathe some life into the numbers. Although the crowd responded enthusiastically, the result was nothing that couldn’t be easily found at any of the city’s best hip hop dance clubs.

Opening act Hearts of Darkness didn’t do Snoop any favors. The 70-minute set by the local Afro-beat ensemble may have carried on too long for casual fans, but the interplay between the group’s large horn section and several percussionists kept the crowd dancing despite the withering heat. A cover of Outkast’s “Spottieottiedopaliscious” blended well with the 15-piece band’s original material.

A half hour into Snoop’s set – and more than three hours after Hearts of Darkness took the stage – I succumbed to the weather and the hour and headed for home. The decision may sniff of Old Man Syndrome, but it turned out to be the right call: Snoop himself called it a night less than 30 minutes later.

The high point of the Doggfather’s set was watching the teenagers outside the venue, dance and party on dumpsters across the street so they could see over the fence and watch the rap celebrity. The group was having so much fun they even got a shout-out from the stage. But it’s hard to feel shortchanged when you haven’t paid anything in the first place.

Keep reading:
Review: Snoop Dogg with Method Man and Redman
A Black Friday blowout
Review: Lupe Fiasco 

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(Above: Gil Scott-Heron performs “We Almost Lost Detroit” in concert. His June 20 performance at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., earns an honorable mention as one of the top shows of the year.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Jonsi, April 22, Liberty Hall

Sigur Ros concerts have a sustained emotional intensity matched only by Radiohead’s events. On his own, Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi ratcheted the passion even higher. The 80-minute set focused only on Jonsi’s solo release “Go” and a few outtakes. Although the material was original, the textures, delivery and emotions echoed Jonsi’s other band, including a climax that was one of the most sustained and forceful moments in which I’ve ever had the joy of being included. Read more.

Emmylou Harris, July 18, Stiefel Theater, Salina, Kan.

Four days after delivering a short set in the blistering heat to the Lilith Fair crowd at Sandstone Amphitheater, Emmylou Harris took her Red Hot Band to tiny Salina, Kan. For two hours she gave an intimate set in a theater slightly smaller and slightly newer than Kansas City’s Folly Theater. The set reprised many of the songs performed at Lilith – including a beautiful a capella rendition of “Calling My Children Home” and Harris’ hymn “The Pearl” – a lovely tribute to her departed friend Anna McGarrigle, and other gems spanning her entire career. Harris’ enchanting voice captivates in any setting. Removed from the heat and placed in a charming surrounding it shined even brighter. Read a review of Lilith Fair here.

Pearl Jam, May 3, Sprint Center

Nearly all of the 28 songs Pearl Jam performed during its sold-out, two-and-a-half hour concert were sing-alongs. Kansas City fans has waited eight years since the band’s last stop to join in with their heroes, and the crowd let the band know it. Near the end, Eddie Vedder introduced Kansas City Royals legend Willie Wilson by wearing a No. 6 Royals jersey. Vedder later invited onstage wounded Iraqi war vet Tomas Young, who appeared in the documentary “Body of War.” With Young in a wheelchair to his left, Vedder performed “No More,” the song the pair wrote together. During the encore, a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic bobsledding team, joined the band on bass for “Yellow Ledbetter.” As the song ended it felt like the evening was winding down, but guitarist Mike McCready refused to quit, spraying a spastic version of Jimi Hendrix’ arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Sept. 21, Midland Theater

An ice storm and obscurity kept many fans away from Sharon Jones’ previous show in the area, a January gig at the Granada three years ago. With those obstacles removed, a crowded Midland Theater audience witnessed a soul revue straight out of the early ‘60s. With a band rooted in the Stax sound and a performance indebted to James Brown and Tina Turner, the diminutive Jones never let up. Jones only stopped dancing to chastise over-eager fans who kept climbing onto her stage. The tight, eight-piece horn section provided motivation enough for everyone else to keep moving.

Flaming Lips, Jan. 1, Cox Area, Oklahoma City

The year was less than an hour old when the Flaming Lips provided one of its top moments. After performing their standard 90-minute set, complete with lasers, confetti and sing-along versions of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Then more balloons and confetti ushered in the new year. The Lips celebrated by bringing opening act Star Death and White Dwarfs onstage for a joint performance of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” in its entirety. Read more.

Izmore/Diverse – Like Water for Chocolate Tribute, March 19, Czar Bar

Combining hip hop and jazz became something of a cliché in the 1990s. The results typically only hinted at the union’s potential, and didn’t satisfy fans of either genre. Ten years after Common released his landmark album “Like Water For Chocolate,” a hip hop album that paid tribute to jazz, Afro-beat and gospel with the help of Roy Hargrove, Femi Kuti, Cee-Lo Green, J Dilla and others, some of Kansas City’s finest artists decided to celebrate the anniversary. MC Les Izmore delivered Common’s rhymes while the jazz quartet Diverse provided innovative and imaginative new backdrops. The result was both jazz and hip hop at their finest, with neither form compromising to the other. Read a feature on the event here.

David Gray, March 17, Uptown Theater

After releasing several solid albums in obscurity in the 1990s, David Gray finally broke into the mainstream at the turn of the century. As his tours grew bigger and catalog became richer, a Kansas City date remained elusive. On St. Patrick’s Day, Gray finally satisfied a ravenous capacity crowd with a two-hour set sprinkled with the songs that made him a household name. Songs like “Babylon” and “World To Me” are written well enough to make the show memorable, but the passion and energy Gray and his band invested in the night made this an amazing night for even this casual fan. A strong opening set from Phosphorescent made the evening even better. Read more.

Black Keys, June 4, Crossroads

The Akron, Ohio, garage blues duo opened Crossroads’ summer season with a sold-out night that focused on their latest effort, the spectacular “Brothers.” Drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach were augmented with a bass player and keyboardist on several numbers, but their trademark sound remained unaltered. Read more.

Public Image Ltd., April 26, Midland Theater

On paper, fans had a right to be cynical about this tour. After embarrassing himself with a handful of half-assed Sex Pistols reunions, Johnny Rotten recruited two new musicians to reconstitute his Public Image Ltd. project. Although Rotten was PiL’s only consistent member, and his current X-piece band had never played together before, they managed to flawlessly replicate the band’s finest moments. The Midland was embarrassingly empty – the balcony was closed, and the floor was less than half full – but Rotten played like it was the final night of the tour in front of a festival crowd. Read more.

Allen Toussaint, Jan. 8, Folly Theater

Seventy-two-year-old New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint has been writing, producing and performing hit singles for more than 50 years. His songs include “Working In A Coal Mine,” “Mother In Law,” “A Certain Girl” and “Get Out Of My Life Woman.” Toussaint performed all of these numbers and more in what was remarkably his first concert in Kansas City. His own remarkable catalog aside, the evening’s high point was an amazing solo version of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” Read more.

Keep reading:

Top 10 Concerts of 2009

Top 10 concerts of 2008

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(Above: Jazz pianist Mark Lowrey teamed up with local musicians for the second installment of the Mark Lowrey vs. Hip Hop series.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Mark Lowrey sits behind a grand piano, contemplating using a Thelonious Monk number as an introduction to the rapper Common’s song “Thelonious.” As his fingers coax a signature Monk melody from the keys, bass player Dominique Sanders and drummer Ryan Lee nod in approval.

“I thought it was really obvious at first,” Lowrey admits. “But sometimes obvious is good.”

Two days before Thanksgiving, Lowrey and his rhythm section are sorting through ideas, sketching a musical landscape. They are joined by singer Schelli Tolliver and MCs Les Izmore and Reach. The final vision – a bridging of jazz and hip hop, structured and improvised – will be displayed tonight at Crosstown Station. The Black Friday ensemble takes the stage at 10 p.m. Cover is $10.

“We’ll be doing a mix of originals and covers,” says trumpet player Hermon Mehari, who will also be participating. “We’re playing tribute to some of the great hip hop artists of our time like Talib Kweli, A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla. Additionally, Reach and Les will both do some originals.”

After a few trials, the Monk number “I Mean You” has been successfully married to “Thelonious.” On “The Light,” another Common song, the band suddenly drops into Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” right after the lyric “It’s kinda fresh you listen to more than hip hop.”

KC MCs Les Izmore (left) and Reach salute Charlie Parker inside the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

“When Les and Diverse played this (‘The Light’) earlier this year they did ‘Unforgettable’ in that spot,” Lowrey says. “Everybody liked that, but we didn’t want to use the same thing. We were tossing out ideas, and someone suggested Michael Jackson.”

That same process informed the playlist. Everyone presented the songs they wanted to do, and the set was culled from what worked and how the band’s reactions. When Reach takes the mic for Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” he intersperses short bursts of freestyle around the original lyrics. A later run through of Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got” reveals an energy only hinted at on the Top 10 single. As Reach commands the imaginary crowd to wave their arms, Lee goes berserk on his drum kit.

“These shows have a different energy than Hearts of Darkness,” Izmore says of the local Afrobeat group he fronts. “With those shows you’re always trying to keep people dancing and keep the energy high. Here you can chill out and listen.”

Rehearsals will soon move to Crosstown Station, but for tonight the Mutual Musicians Foundation is home. The hallowed hall on Highland, home to Hootie and Bird, Count Basie and Big Joe Turner. The spirit of innovation those musicians introduced to the world via Kansas City is very much on display in the current sextet. Some may scoff that jazz and hip hop may seem to exist on disparate planets, but their orbits collide surprisingly often.

“I grew up on jazz, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald,” Reach says. “She (Ella) very much influenced my delivery and the way I play with cadences.”

Lowrey first toyed with combining rap and hip hop when he invited local MC Kartoon to sit in with his group a couple years ago. Both artists enjoyed the experience and Kartoon put Lowrey in touch with other vocalists in the KC hip hop scene.

“Hip hop has always been influenced by jazz,” Reach says. “Now, because the younger jazz musicians have grown up with hip hop, we are seeing it influence jazz. It’s kind of come full circle.”

In the past year, Lowrey has hosted several Mark Lowrey vs. Hip Hop concerts. The shows are basic, but explosive. Lowrey and drummer Brandon Draper create free jazz textures, as MCs and musicians alike improvise over the ever-changing structure.

“Our arrangements for this show are based in the tradition of jazz where you play the melody, then improvise over the chords before coming back to the head (melody),” Lowrey says. “The only difference is that we’re adding MCs in the mix with the horns.”

At another jazz/hip hop mash-up last February, Izmore and Diverse, a local jazz quartet that includes Mehari and Lee, celebrated the 10th anniversary of Common’s album “Like Water For Chocolate” by rearranging and performing the record in its entirety. The night ended with an encore of the Charlie Parker song “Diverse.”

“I’ve never seen a crowd of non-jazz fans so into the music,” Mehari says. “It’s the perfect example of what we want to do. Bring people in with hip hop and music they want to hear, then take them on a journey to new sounds. Once we’ve earned their trust, they’ll follow us anywhere.”

Keep reading:

KC’s MCs throw down this weekend

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Open wide for Mouth

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(Above: “Shining Down” was one of several new songs Lupe Fiasco performed at his recent concert at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco’s Kansas City debut promised to touch the sky, but left many fans hanging in midair. While Fiasco’s 65-minute set was strong, the lack of an encore left the brief evening seeking resolution.

As his guitar player noodle a riff reminiscent of “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Fiasco launched into “Shining Down,” a song he released as a on-line single last year. A handful of similarly low-profile or unreleased cuts were sprinkled throughout the set. It has been three years since Fiasco’s last release, and the crowd happily embraced the new material.

Hip hop always sounds better when delivered through live instruments. Fiasco’s band included a drummer and a DJ, who rocked two Macs instead of two turntables, and it flexed its muscles several times. The setlist included a devastating reading of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” as Fiasco spit some of his most articulate and angry rhymes of the night. The players also bridged one song to another with brief solos or instrumentals.
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Although the new songs were appreciated, the evening didn’t officially seem to start until the fifth number, “Hip Hop Saved My Life.” The performance raised a sea of hands and kicked off a powerful run through most of Fiasco’s biggest songs. A surprise detour through N.E.R.D.’s “Everybody Nose” (“all the girls standing the line for the bathroom”) led straight into “Go Go Gadget Flow” and Fiasco’s pride for the Windy City. The run culminated with the skateboard anthem that took Fiasco into the mainstream, “Kick, Push.”

The favorites were exhausted, but Fiasco still had plenty of tricks up his sleeve. “Scream,” another new track, was a low-key mood piece set in a wash of keyboards and guitars over insistent drumming and magical delivery. From there Fiasco made his biggest statement of the night. The trio of “Little Weapon,” a song about child soldiers in Africa, “Streets of Fire,” a portrait of inner-city gang culture, and “Fighters” created a stirring case against violence and war. 

The cavernous Midland was more empty than full. The upper balcony was closed and the floor was only three-quarters populated. While the fans’ energy rarely flagged, the sound suffered, and one had to wonder if the performance wouldn’t have been better in a smaller venue. 

A lot of the band’s sound seemed lost in the room. The drums were thin and it seemed only the guitar or DJ could be heard in the mix at the same time. Only Fiasco’s ultra-enunciated, rapid-fire rhymes consistently penetrated the space.

The set ended with two of Fiasco’s biggest songs off “The Cool.” “Superstar” is a portrait of the fragility behind a celebrity’s public armor, and the hook-happy “Paris, Tokyo” is a hip hop love song about life on the road.

When the band departed after a little over an hour, an encore seemed inevitable. Too many good songs –including Lupe’s duets with Kanye West, “Touch the Sky,” “Us Placers” – had yet to be played. Chanting for their return, the crowd continued to stand in disbelief when the house lights came on. As the canned music grew louder, they gradually filed out.

Les Izmore: The local MC turned his 30-minute opening set into a taste of the city’s hip hop scene. Backed by a DJ, he performed one number alone, then brought out Dutch Newman for another. His set really took off when the four-piece horn section and rhythm section from Hearts of Darkness came out. “Middle of the Map” had a tight James Brown feel, and the Afro-beat number “America One” got the crowd involved. Izmore took the stage wearing a duck head and leading the crowd in “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” but quickly proved he’s no joke.

Setlist: Shining Down, Solar Midnite, The Instrumental, The National Anthem, State-Run Radio, Hip-Hop Saved My Life, High Definition, Everyone Nose (N.E.R.D. cover); Go Go Gadget Flow; I Gotcha; Kick, Push; Scream;Little Weapon; The Cool; Streets on Fire; Fighters; I’m Beaming; Superstar; Paris, Tokyo.

Keep reading:

Les Izmore – Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album
Review: Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek
Professor Griff discusses the past – and future – of Public Enemy
Review: For The Roots It’s All In The Music

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(Above:  “The Sixth Sense”  – A classic joint from a classic album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Trumpet player Hermon Mehari of Diverse kept a copy of Common’s landmark hip hop album “Like Water for Chocolate” in his car for two years, but it wasn’t until he saw Les Izmore at the Czar Bar in January that he knew what he wanted to do with it.

The idea was as ambitious as the album Mehari wanted to celebrate: to combine the jazz chops of Diverse with Izmore’s hip hop style. Both outfits are staples of the local music scenes that rarely overlap.

“The people in the jazz scene often worry why people don’t go out, but the truth is some people don’t have a reason to go to Jardine’s or the Blue Room,” Mehari said. “Likewise, a lot of people may never have been to a hip hop show before. Hopefully this will give everyone a reason to get out more.”

Izmore frequently performs both on his own and with the Afro-beat collective Hearts of Darkness. Diverse made a big splash on the jazz scene when Bobby Watson unveiled the combo in 2008. They kept the momentum alive with a self-titled debut the following year and several high-profile shows and collaborations.

“Diverse has wanted to do a cross-genre collaboration for a while,” Melhari said. “I heard Les that night and was impressed. Could to tell from Les’ rhythms he liked all of that.”

By “all of that” Mehari means Common, Black Star, the Roots and the other members of the late-‘90s New Native Tongues movement in hip hop. The low-key faction turned their backs on the hard, gangsta stance of the moment to focus on socially conscious lyrics backed with soulful or jazz-influenced production.

“Hermon pretty much said he want to link up in the future,” Izmore said. “I was definitely interested, but I didn’t know he already had an idea. When he brought up ‘Like Water For Chocolate’ I was like hell yeah. That’s one of my favorite albums ever.”

On Friday, March 19, Izmore and Diverse will collaborate and celebrate the 10th anniversary of “Like Water For Chocolate” at the Czar Bar.

That album’s music, there’s no album with the sound like they have,” Izmore said. “That was my way into (Afro-beat legend) Fela (Kuti) because (his son) Femi is on there. That album can get you into so much stuff. You have the jazz guys, the hip hop, DJ Premier, Jill Scott. It’s a who’s who of that time. These are some of the best artists of their time.”

The “Like Water for Chocolate” roster also includes jazz trumpet player Roy Hargrove, rappers Mos Def and Slum Village, DJ Premier, Black Thought, Rahzel and Questlove from the Roots, soul singers D’Angelo, Macy Gray and Bilal and future Gnarls Barkley singer Cee-Lo. Producer James Yancey, or J Dilla, a longtime friend of Common’s who had worked with A Tribe Called Quest, tied all the elements together.

In keeping with the spirit of the album, Izmore and Diverse will have a few friends on hand to help them out as well. Hearts of Darkness singer Brandy Gordon will take on all the female vocal parts, and Lee Langston will stand in for D’Angelo, Bilal and Cee-Lo. Local MCs Reach and Vertigone also help out.

“We will definitely keep the jazz tradition and hip hop tradition of improve and freestyle alive,” Izmore said. “We’re not going to do the album straight through, and we might even skip a song or two. We want to leave a lot of room for improv.”

As an MC who grew up with the album, Izmore said he needed little preparation for the show. Diverse had the tougher job translating and arranging the record’s sounds and textures.

“We all expected this show to be harder than jazz shows because of a lot of the intricacies,” Mehari said. “Some of the things you have to do goes against the nature of a jazz musician. Like in jazz there are usually a lot of changes, but here because of the loops you have to find ways to be creative within that repetition.”

Izmore and Diverse worked out their parts separately, then rehearsed together in the weeks leading up to the performance.

“When I first heard them I was ecstatic,” Izmore said. “I knew it was going to be a fun night, because they got it down. It doesn’t sound like jazz players doing hip hop.”

Mehari said he was pleasantly surprised by the reaction in the jazz community.

“When Diverse played a house party at 57th and Ward Parkway, people there asked me what we had coming up,” Mehari said. “I wouldn’t have expected them to get excited, but they did.”

With its socially conscious poetry, innovative rhythms and intricate rhymes, Mehari said “Like Water For Chocolate” forced him to grow as an artist. Now he’s hoping to use the album to expand the horizon’s of Kansas City’s music community.

“This is how the scene grows,” Mehari continued. “I think people are too reliant on fans. I think it’s our job as artists to take things higher.”

Keep reading:

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Review: Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek

Review: Sonny Rollins

Review: For The Roots It’s All In The Music

15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years

Professor Griff discusses the past – and future – of Public Enemy

Buck O’Neil: Sweet times, sweet sounds at 18th and Vine

Review: Snoop Dogg with Method Man and Redman

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(Above: Supernatural takes on Juice in one of the most famous MC battles of all time.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Practice is vital but when it comes to rapping, nothing improves skills like a live, trial-by-fire MC battle. This weekend, several rappers will have a chance to compete for money.

The third annual Versus Emcee and Beat Battle goes down Saturday night at the Record Bar, 1020 Westport Road. A pre-battle show will be held tonight at the Riot Room.

“Battles are how you prove yourself and show how far your skills have developed,” said Clarence Draper, who goes by the MC name Vertigone. “This is also a way for people who aren’t actively involved in the scene or new to the area to get up and connect and get involved.”

The contest is open to the first 16 MCs who sign up. Draper encouraged them to arrive between 8:30 and 9 p.m. The winner will take home $500.

“This is first-come, first-served, so they need to be there early,” he said. “Plus people should come out to see the beat battle.”

In the beat battle, six DJs will use their own equipment and go head- to-head in six rounds that include using a common sample to create distinct productions.

Draper said the final evening will resemble the battle scenes in “8 Mile” but without scripts. Everything that comes off the stage must be spontaneous.

“At Versus we reward the freestyle,” Draper said, “which is the most pure idea of the MC not having anything and being ready to rhyme.”

Draper practices his freestyles during his normal routine, incorporating things he sees, such as traffic signals, into rhymes.

“The socially conscious stuff I do on my albums is not going to win you any battles,” he said with a laugh. “I practice all the time how to rhyme, which words work together. I focus mainly on two-syllable words like ‘eventually’ and ‘century.’ It’s not all ‘cat’ and ‘hat.’”

MC Les Izmore, who releases albums on his own and performs as part of Hearts of Darkness, participated in last year’s Versus battle. For him, the night is more about building his skills than beating others.

“I know a lot of people practice their freestyle, but I’m not prepping,” Izmore said. “(Last year) was a thrill. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I may not know the person I’m up against, but I’m there to challenge myself as an MC.”

Although boasts and insults are a large part of the battle repertoire, presentation plays a large role. In other words, sweat the technique.

“Battling is more than insulting people. You have to have style and swagger to how you do it,” Draper said. “You have to work the crowd as much as your opponent. When someone says something that sways the crowd, you have to win them back.”

While the Versus battle is only in its third year, its tradition runs deep in Kansas City. During the city’s jazz heyday, musicians would spar in ‘head cutting’ contests nearly every night in the 18th and Vine District.

“I’ve been at the Mutual Musicians Foundation and seen the musicians, all of them were just in this mood, this groove,” Draper said. “And then they started jumping off of that with solos, each person trying to outdo the other. It’s the same thing we’re trying to do in a freestyle.”

Vertigone and his friend Raymond “Kartoon” Hardy hosted the initial Versus battle because they felt there was a void in the community after the demise of the successful Mic Mechanics battles in Lawrence.

“Battle rhyming starts out under the street lights and on the corners in the neighborhood,” Draper said. “Eventually you get tired of that and want to take on other people. We are trying to keep this going for anyone who doesn’t have an outlet. It’s as much about social networking as anything.”

Izmore has one final word of advice for everyone joining him onstage this weekend.

“When I was up there (onstage last year), I could feel a ton of raw energy,” he said. “You gotta make sure to come with your best, because you don’t know what will come up next time.”

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