GZA and Killer Mike at Summit, 9/22/12

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"I don't have a hypeman, so you're my hype man," Killer Mike tells the crowd two songs into his set. "So get hype, motherfuckers." The crowd is more than happy to comply. Opening with the first three songs from his new album, the emcee emits a raw energy on stage that could keeps the crowd hyped over songs like "Dear Lord" and later "Reagan," which he introduced with a diatribe about the socioeconomics of the war on drugs.

The crowd gave that energy right back, bouncing and bucking along with Bonecrusher's Southern club anthem "Never Scared," on which Mike featured, and then swaying along at the end of "Ric Flair" as DJ Trackstar dropped the Phoenix Express tune "You Make My Life a Sunny Day," which is the origin of the beat's smooth horn and vocal sample.

"I'm having the time of my life. I wanna appreciate y'all," he told the crowd. "And to all the ladies dating video game players and hip-hop fans, it can be boring sometimes, so I appreciate y'all." The aside was partly in appreciation of Trackstar's girlfriend, Camille, whose birthday is today. The DJ called her on the phone, and the crowd wished her a happy birthday. It got downright family-like.

Maybe it's because Killer Mike has a new album, R.A.P. Music, that improved the relatively young audience's familiarity, or maybe the crowd was a little too stoned by the time GZA came on stage around midnight, but the Genius did not seem as connected with the audience. Before his set started, he gave himself an introduction of sorts from off stage. "I'm like the Wizard of Oz. I'm here to give you courage. To give you a heart. To give you a brain."

Despite what seemed like unnecessarily long breaks between sets for the four-act bill, the crowd seemed excited: Chants of "Wu-Tang" and "RIP ODB" had already broken out spontaneously. But, after opening with "Duel of the Iron Mics," and "Living in the World Today," GZA wasn't feeling a couple of people in the front row, so rather than deliver upon his all of his wizardly promises, he gave them a hard time.

The tour is being billed as GZA performing his classic album, Liquid Swords,though most of those in the front row looked like they were born the year it dropped (1995). After two decades of crowds packed with Wu-Tang devotees, the audience in the Summit wasn't giving him the energy he was looking for, apparently. Trying to incite them, he told everyone they seem like they're from Aspen. "Y'all are some laidback motherfuckers."

While the crowd connected with familiar anthems like "Liquid Swords," which he saved for fourth, even though the title track is the album's first song, everyone under the age of thirty lost a step on cuts like "Cold World" and "Labels." GZA appeared perturbed that the crowd wasn't as in tune as it should have been.

During one exchange, he asked a kid how old he was, and how familiar he is with Wu-Tang lyrics. The kid replied that he was seventeen, didn't know all the words, and that his dad put him onto Wu-Tang. GZA seems pleased enough with the answer. "We don't just have fans that grew up with us," he said. "We have their children."

Later in the show, he asked another guy whether he'd like to get on the mike to see if he could do a better job. He told the kid that if the crowd booed his effort, then he'd have to leave the show. The aside then escalated to the kid actually getting the mike and attempting to tell a joke about two cannibals eating a clown. The kid was allowed to stay, despite the joke not going over too well.

Continue for more details and a Critic's Notebook.

At one point, GZA explained that he doesn't normally do a lot of talking between songs, but his set thus far had been a direct contradiction of that. And for all of his talk about the crowd being too laidback, he spent almost as much time alienating it. "I'm not one of those emcees that says, 'Make some noise if you got $5 in your pocket,'" he said during an explanation of how he can do what he wants on stage.

After a half dozen songs, he gave up on performing the album and ran through a list of Wu-Tang anthems. The crowd waved its finger-formed Ws along to his rendition of ODB's "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," and Wu-Tang Forever's "Reunited" before switching over to a couple from 2002's Legend of the Liquid Sword, including the title track, followed by "Animal Planet" and "Knock, Knock." Maybe it was the elevation getting to him, but despite earlier claims that he wasn't winded, his cadence was occasionally at odds with his breath control, a situation exacerbated by his intricately crafted lines.

He droped Inspectah Deck's verse from "Protect Ya Neck," which sent the crowd into a frenzy, then slid into "Triumph," where he delivered another of the Inspectah's verses. GZA then decided to let the beat ride and fills in with a medley of Wu moments, leading the crowd through a chant of "Cash rules everything around me."

After more talking, including reminding everyone that next year would be the 20th anniversary of 36 Chambers, he implied that the Clan might be re-uniting for a tour, and that if it does, it might come through Denver. That came with the caveat that if it doesn't come through next year, maybe it will in two years. It was a peculiar end to a curious evening of ups and downs.

The opening band was Bear Hands, an indie dance-rock four-piece from Brooklyn that sounded like the love child of Radio 4 and the Talking Heads. How and why they landed the opening slot for this tour is a bit of a mystery. Musical diversity is alive and well, but they played with all their equipment pushed to the front of the stage, because the DJ stand was set up in the center of it.

Their set was followed by Sweet Valley, a beat-based side project of the guitarist from Wavves (who also accompanies GZA with live guitar during the headliner's set). Sweet Valley's sound is a mélange of video-game sounds, kung-fu samples, crisp bass and trap hi-hat rushes, and makes a much more sensible opening mood, stylistically bridging the cold loops RZA constructed for Liquid Swords and the more traditionally southern style of Killer Mike.


Personal Bias: I've seen Killer Mike and GZA live before, but never on the same night.

Random Note: I overheard a person behind me ask their companion whether GZA was wasted. I'm not sure about the answer.

By the Way: There was a guy in green track pants standing at the back of the stage throughout GZA's set. He seemed to be getting paid to drink and smoke the entire time, because he didn't do anything else. His most helpful moment was rolling a blunt for the DJ.

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