Entering the Marquis Theater on Larimer Street on Saturday night was like stepping into a warm, dry bungalow after being drenched by freezing rain. In this case, however, the warm, dry bungalow was the eclectic, soulful mixing of DJ Beretta -- which provided the ideal ramp-up into a night of exceptional live hip-hop -- and the freezing rain was the melee of stumbling, staggering St. Patrick's Day revelers who transformed Larimer into a cacophonous, turbulent sea of green.
Beretta's unobtrusive yet creative set warmed the stage for the appearance of Detroit rappers D. Allie and Dante, two exceptionally hardworking MCs who deftly balance between good-time party music and conscious rap. As the only out-of-towners on the bill, the Michiganders were at a distinct disadvantage, but they overcame it with easy stage charisma, impassioned delivery, forceful flow and an irrepressible sense of fun. Most important, the visitors made sincere efforts to connect with the people of Denver. Dante wrote names on the back of his hand so that he could shout them out from the stage. He also led the crowd in a little Stroll-like slide step, choreographed to James Brown's "Please Please Please," for no reason other than crowd engagement. Both rappers ended up in the crowd at various points during their sets, and could be seen before and after the show, talking to random passersby on the street, handing out postcards, stickers, T-shirts and even CDs while getting to know folks and being good-natured hustlers. These talented, talkative wordsmiths definitely made their mark on Denver.
Next up was the blazing Denver duo of Air Dubai, who caught me completely by surprise. While the vibe of the pair's stunning 2008 debut, ManeLine frontman Mane Rok rarely performs solo, so Saturday night was a special treat for fans of his potent and pumped-up style, and he did not disappoint. The introspective yet expressive MC hit the boards forcefully over a heavy rock beat from DJ A-What!, gruffly delivering his vitriolic and insightful rhymes. Performing a few favorite ManeLine tracks as well as some fiery new songs, Mane Rok acted as the ideal energetic bridge from the opening acts to the headliner, further heating up the crowd without peaking too soon. Though his own energy flagged a bit as the evening wore on, special guests like 3 the Hardway's A.V.I.U.S. boosted the MC up and gave his set the powerful thrust it needed. Occasional technical difficulties made the vocals difficult to discern at times, but thanks to Mane Rok's confident, intense stage presence, the meaning remained largely intact.
Speaking of confident, intense stage presence, there are few Denver performers in any genre who can touch the Pirate Signal's Yonnas Abraham. Like a man possessed, Yonnas simultaneously menaced the crowd and beckoned them to come closer with his infectious energy. Watching him perform, it's not to hard to imagine Yonnas as an award-winning actor or the leader of a sketchy religious cult. Given his talent for wordplay, the latter seems more likely. His eyes blazed, veins bulged and syllables flew, while A-What! adroitly pumped up his tracks and scratching to keep pace with the incendiary MC. Though Yonnas apologized to the crowd for being "more passionate than precise," nothing about the Pirate Signal's set seemed haphazard. Yonnas bobbed and weaved between the profound and the playful -- quoting Tribe Called Quest one moment and Rob Base the next -- while A-What! athletically scratched up thunderous beats, almost effortlessly accomplishing what many conscious hip-hop acts strive for: engaging both the body and the mind.
Personal Bias: While I've found the sound at the Marquis to be hit and miss, I really appreciate the venue's commitment to hosting all-ages events. The energy can't be beat.
Random Detail: When the Pirate Signal was booked to play the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, A-what!'s schedule didn't allow him to go along, so DJ Beretta filled in.
By the Way:
The Pirate Signal -- as well as Yonnas's new project with DJ Hot to Death -- are opening for a diverse bunch of touring acts in the weeks to come: Zion I, the Presets, Crookers and Too Short! Visit the group's MySpace page
for more info.