September 30, 2008
By JASON HARPER
Photos By SCOTT SPYCHALSKI
As a cat lookin' at 30, I am inspired by this Santogold . Just a few days ago, on September 26, Santi White, as she's known to her mama and the law, celebrated her 32nd birthday, and here she is, traveling the world, winning scads of adoring young fans, gracing hip magazine covers in tights-based outfits reserved usually for early 20-somethings, getting remixed by hot DJs -- all behind a debut album. A debut at 32! Of course, it helps that the gorgeous Philadelphia-born Brooklyn-dweller has flawless caramel skin and a wide smile that could light a softball field at night. Not to mention she knows how to get 'em dancing.
Unfortunately, one of the more salient factors of last night's show was that Santogold's set was only about 40 minutes long. This meant that folks who had bought $20.50 advance ticket just to see the headliner paid $.51 a minute, like the rates on a collect call from Chile. (It didn't help, either, that one of the bands on the wider four-band bill canceled.) More prudent Lawrencians may have foreseen that issue, and that's why Liberty Hall's balcony was closed and the lower level only about 2/3 full. Fortunately, though her contribution did not present a good value to fans, Santogold's music was sweet -- eclectic and dripping with big globs of golden beat honey -- and she, her DJ, and her two sidekick dancers put on a stylish show.
After the stage had been cleared of all traces of Mates of State, who I was told played for a moderately sized band of faithful enthusiasts, the lights went down, and two ladies clad in billowing gold metallic blouses and hefty sunglasses appeared on either end of the stage. These, of course, were Santogold's henchwoman dancers, who are usually clad in military outfits styled after Public Enemy's S1Ws (as in this video), only not as scary. Thoughout the show, the ladies, who looked about 15 to 20 years younger than their boss, mostly stood stock still and expressionless, breaking at key moments into tight, fist-thrusting, head-jerking dance moves. For the first few songs, the effect was cool, but after a while, the minimalistic nature of the dancers' role on stage, compared with Santogold's easygoing, genteel nature, made the SG1s (as I believe Santo referred to them) seem like girls who had been kidnapped from a schoolyard jumprope session and brainwashed. Well, I just hope those chicks have fun on tour.
Looking like a wayward member of TLC in grandma jacket, gold tights, trucker hat and mirror aviators, Santogold led her crew into the loud, hammering strains of "You'll Find a Way," shoving into a motion a set that would uphold its creator's rock and punk influences while exploiting the bone-rattling bass of her primary hip-hop and dub roots. Or maybe I've got "influences" and "roots" switched in that sentence. Sure, she goes around playing with a DJ -- Diplo was the first. And image-wise, she looks like an extra from Yo! MTV Raps. And there are the beats, the heavy, heavy, glacier-leveling beats. But Santi White used to be in a punk band called Stiffed (whose two albums were produced by Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jennifer), and as Santogold she still covers bands like the Jam and the Clash.
This is where she differs from M.I.A., to whom Santogold is often compared and comes up short in many peoples' eyes. Listen to a song like "Creator" , and the stuttering, worldbeaty drums, chirpy vocals and razorlike electro-synth riffs definitely recall the famous 31-year-old British-Sri Lankan, who has made her career peddling (also with Diplo at the decks at first) in subcontinental beats and pidjin rap-singing.
But on tracks like "L.E.S. Artistes", the bass-guitar-driven "You'll Find a Way" and the very Cars-y "Lights Out," there's an undeniable rock/indie-rock/guitar-pop foundation that M.I.A. wouldn't touch. Meanwhile, "Say Aha" sounds like a Gnarls Barkley-Outkast go-go collision. "Shuv It" is dubby reggae stuff. (She played all these songs last night, and the emphasis was on the sub-bass, not the rock.)
So, really, Santogold's not much like the way-more-political M.I.A. at all. Maybe it's the bright '80s clothing that confuses people.
Yeah, that's gotta be it.
The folks at Liberty Hall weren't confused about what they'd come to do -- they came to dance. However, Santogold really didn't work the crowd that much, resulting, I feel, in a rather stiff dancefloor. I know it's cheap, but had Santo called for folks to do things like make noise and raise their hands in the air -- you know, the usual hip-hop partystarting stuff -- it might have gone a long way. She did call about 18 people on stage to dance to "Creator." That was cool, though most of the people who ended up there, as a friend of mine pointed out, looked like local drama students out for a night of texting, dancing and vodka crans.
So, not the most exciting live show ever. The bass was almost punishing, and I could only hear Santo's voice clearly when I stuck my fingers halway in my ears. All in all, it was kind of a letdown when you ponder Santogold's wondrous eclecticism and charm -- where was the real energy? But right now, her fans are so pumped that most folks left satisfied. One pal of mine had greeted me halfway through the show with the bold declaration, "Welcome to the future!"
If he's right, then I have seen the future. And it's in its 30s.
By the Way: I obviously did not attempt to review the two other bands who did play, Mates and Low Vs. Diamond. I figured I'd have too much to say about Santogold, and I think I was right. If you caught the other acts, by all means, post a comment letting us know how they were.
By the Way, pt. 2: