With all the whispers that Shabazz Palaces were something akin to hip-hop meets Sun Ra, the expectations for what they were going to bring to Jazzhouse were high. Indeed as we waited for the set to begin, the individual stations, with their drums and electronics sitting neatly on draped colorful fabrics, suggested something vibrant or just more dynamic than what their albums bring.
The reality is about half true. The set starts off in total darkness and the lighting only improves to dim. There are hints of how wonderful their early 90s outfits must be, but it’s too dark to see the details. But what is immediately clear is that Shabazz Palaces sell themselves short on their recordings. The muted dub quality of the albums dampens everything from the vocals to the broad-ranging references, all of which come to life in their live set. Vocalist Ishmael Butler’s delivery has a lot more attitude and personality live, and the nuances of the percussion that are lost on the alums are laid out in a dazzling array: Drum machines, samplers, congas, snares, and a giant mbira among others. Percussionist Tendai Maraire quickly proves himself to be a multi-tasking monster.
With this apparent attention to detail, it seems likely that it was a conscious decision rather than an accident of the sound system that the sub bass creeps and in squashes the vocals flat. Those moments are frustrating, because Butler’s style, and the duo’s occasionally synchronized movements in the darkness literally pull the audience in (though the opening to “Welcome to Quazarz,” insisting, “I’m from the United States of America/We talk with guns/Guns keep us safe” is feeling particularly grim the week of a mass shooting).
If Shabazz Palaces are Sun Ra levels of insane on stage, they are at the very least an energetic duo; Butler would probably rocket around the stage if he didn’t have to keep reining himself in to go back to his synths and samplers. Maraire has more the approach of a marathon runner and clearly understands the need to pace himself if he’s going to get through the set.
The set itself does drag out for nearly two hours and it feels it. Because while Shabazz Palaces have an undeniably strong sound, the focuses on the sound often surpasses the focus on songs. And as there are peaks and valleys in dancing, maybe it’s question of location — if the duo continue to go for lengthy performances, then visuals might be helpful, or at least a seated venue.