Show Recap: The Coup’s new kind of revolution
Words and Photos: Kevin Lee / March 8, 2013
The new look Coup crew, reconfigured with several band members deeper, lit up Broadway Studios in San Francisco this past Saturday in a special art show-slash-performance they called Shadowbox. The show, an official event of this year's Noise Pop music festival, featured primarily The Coup, lead by longtime frontman Boots Riley, and a diverse roster of support acts that rotated in and out throughout the night, with decor provided by street artist Jon-Paul Bail, all combined into a kind of theatrical revue that is far from your typical hip-hop concert.
Tracing the line between The Coup in its original iteration to the one that rocked Broadway Studios is an interesting story in itself. In 2009, Riley, the heart and soul of The Coup, teamed with Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello to release the first album for Street Sweeper Social Club, their rock/rap hybrid supergroup that kept their renegade activism as foundation and core. Not soon after, Occupy happened, which in addition to all of its protests and clashes was in many ways a reinvention of street activism–one of which was bringing together a diverse crowd of activists and sympathetic artists that combined music, art, and creative expression, sprouting in each major American city a banker-menacing Burning Man festival.
Touring nationally with a live band and seeing the convergence of Occupy must have triggered something in Riley's thinking, as The Coup, while performing as an live band in the past, doubled down on the concept, complete with an establish lineup of guitars, keyboards, drums, and a female singer/vocalist in the form of Silk-E. Their music shifted as well, while just as provocative politically as before, it was now candy-coated in a rich molasses of funk. Compared to the denseness of lyrics of, say, "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night", a track from 1998's Steal This Album that's as wordy as its title, the simple rhythmic and much more groovable "Land of 7 Billion Dances" from the new lineup's Sorry To Bother You makes it clear that Riley had shifted not only his band lineup but his tactics. This isn't solitary headphones-while-on-public-transit music anymore, this is move-the-masses dance music.
How that translated to the live show experience is probably as you can imagine, as Saturday's show was a raucous dance party fueled primarily by funk, but there was plenty of musical diversity to create a festival atmosphere. The Coup themselves kept matters upbeat, utilizing Silk-E often and effectively, with strong beltings of energetic punk rock inspired soul that easily overwhelmed the small stage. Boots was not one to forget his old discography, but when he included older tracks like "Me and Jesus" in his set, they were rearranged so drastically that it was almost unrecognizable. If anyone came in strictly for Riley's lyrical output, the flaky sound system's disregard of Riley's mic did them no favors. On the other hand, tracks from the latest Coup album fit into the format like a glove as the soundboard clearly favored the grooves and baselines. Playful in their presentation, Riley brought out a pair of girls in prison jumpsuit with signs printed with the lyrics to "Your Parent's Cocaine", flipping them INXS-style. Another track saw Riley motion to the crowd to play along to kazoos that were given out at the front desk (though the audience's kazoo playing didn't meet Riley's expectations as he teasingly reminded them several times).
A part of the show was a steady parade of musicians of all walks occupying a side stage, playing interludes between The Coup's sets. During one, a string trio performed a neo-classical piece, another had a duo of singers do a rendition of The Knife's "Heartbeats," famously covered as an acoustic ballad by Jose Gonzalez. Sri-Lankan American folk artist Bhi Bhiman provided an acoustic performance, and Jazz Mafia Horns took brass section duties for most of the night. Oakland keyboardist Kev Choice also made a guest appearance as a part of the Coup's on-stage lineup, and had his own interlude as well. With the Jon-Paul Bail's artwork on the walls, hanging drones made of cardboards adorning the ceiling, and reoccurring 1% and 99% themes repeated throughout the artwork (i.e., one piece was subtitled with "Fox News: 1% information, 99% fear") the evening felt like Occupy revival, a come-to-Jesus meeting for the social justice set. And as such, this purported rap concert gets an atypical infusion of hippie chicks in the audience dancing more effusively than rhythmically. But hey, when its time to mobilize the masses for a good ol' fashion revolution, what does it matter?
Correction: Originally we stated The Coup went from just an MC and DJ to a full band with the recording of their new album. That was not true, as The Coup have been performing live and recording with a band for nearly a decade. Thanks to Boots for correcting us in the comments.