Flobots and RJD2 Monday, May 22, 2008 May Day Music Festival, DU, Driscoll LawnWhen RJD2 moved a few steps away from his electronics-laden tables to address the crowd after a ten-minute or so “warm-up” last night, his normally blank, at most half-smiling face broke into an unabashed smirk. “Aren’t you proud of your hometown heroes?” he said. “They got a record deal.”
The Flobots, who played before RJD2, indeed signed a record deal just two months ago with Universal, and have been receiving lavish praise from critics and fans since then. Their hit single “Handlebars,” which is holding steady at number three on Billboard's modern rock chart after seven weeks, and their new album will almost assuredly do well on the strength of that track and others (I predict the next will be “Rise” with its pounding rhythm that evokes another summertime hit -- Modest Mouse’s “Float On”).
Performing on the Driscoll Lawn at DU just two nights after making their televised debut on Last Call with Carson Daly, Flobots played through an unabashedly earnest and emotive set for about an hour, and then ceded the stage as it grew dark to the quiet and enigmatic RJD2. The Flobots’ frequent banter, from a shout out to the hometown and the value of the education that viola player Mackenzie Roberts received at DU to a request for more donations to a fund for Burma, made it clear that their activism and just plain likeability did not end at the stage.
Overall, the sound on their debut album, which at times is a little guitar-heavy and somewhat tinny, was much improved live with the strong presence of Roberts’ viola and a rhythm section that made its best moves on the incredibly funky “Combat,” the most impressive song of the show. Their intensity didn’t always work, especially while playing covers of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” and Pat Benetar’s “Heartbreaker,” where they just looked ridiculous ,and the lyrics were the opposite of funky or fresh.
Unfortunately, even the Flobots’ best moments could not stack up to RJD2. Perhaps he even realized this (see comment above). In completely tearing up the crowd of just-graduated college students, who seemed to admire but not love the Flobots, he sparkled with the virtuosity and genius that have made him so sought after as an instrumental hip-hop artist.
The smirk and the backpack of old vinyl, the four turntables, the video projector behind him playing perfectly chosen nuggets of pop culture, the splicing and dicing and sampling and originality: RJD2 is simply one of the most important artists out there today. His lackluster last album, The Third Hand, where he actually tried his hand at earnest songwriting, shunning the cool that he exudes from every pore, received nary a glance in the set.
His sniping comment at the Flobots showed that he is a truly reclusive and tortured artist, the kind who took his shot at fame and decided, as he said, to simply be “badass,” not activist, not progressive, and not emotive through words but through his intuitive gift of putting sounds together.
-- James Anthofer