New territory: Michael Ray wasn’t in his usual element for a Saturday night show. The aesthetic didn’t quite match the typical Midtown dive—no beer-stained wood flooring to complement his whiskey-flavored, working-class blues. Instead, a large rehearsal room with bright chandeliers, Persian-esque rugs and dormant pianos served as the stage.
In the spirit of jam bands like Snarky Puppy, the local singer-songwriter chose to simultaneously record and perform his second live album in the studio, at Gold Standard Sounds off of Howe Avenue, which is owned by local producer and Sammies Hall of Famer Ira Skinner.
And Ray had company. Joining him was drummer Ratatat Pat, guitarist Matthew Hevesh, bassist Joe Lev, singers Lauren Wakefield and Sandra Dolores Swanfeldt, Skinner in the control room and about 20 family and friends sprawled on pillows and mini crates to witness a full album come to life in two hours.
Together, the band delved into a collection of covers and original songs. The covers flipped through decades of blues vibes, capturing the earthen spirit of the ’60s in Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary,” and the countryside doldrums of the ’40s in Robert Petway’s “Catfish Blues.” Ray colored Swanfeldt’s black-and-white-era vocal style in “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” and grooved between Wakefield’s soulful freestyle in Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind.” The band also ventured into progressive jazz, with Hevesh and Ray trading guitar solos on a whim and without a word.
Ray ended the set with a brooding original titled “I’ll Be Doing Fine.” Ray’s guitar can snarl from a whisper, and he sings with the same primal unease, both instruments quivering between soft-spoken melodies and guttural sounds that personify darkness and desperation. The music looked inseparable from him when the song peaked, and every pick and bend on his fret board provoked pain on his body and face.
He wasn’t on the usual stage, but you couldn’t tell. The blues are all about adaptation, and Ray got comfortably lost in his guitar like it was another night at the Torch Club.
Comeback couple: Rap duo Run The Jewels rocked a sold-out show on Friday night. Two songs in, the entire audience at Oakland’s Fox Theater shouted along to what could easily be the duo’s theme song: “And the crowd goes, ’RTJ’ … and the crowd goes, ’RTJ’ …” The refrain to a new song “Legend Has It” was released just last December, but the crowd seemed to know every word by heart already. You could see the delight and shock on the two rappers’ faces at the overwhelming response.
“In all honesty, it blows my mind that there’s this many people in front of us,” El-P said a little while later.
The group’s success came off the heels of its critically acclaimed 2014 sophomore album Run The Jewels 2, a politically charged hip-hop record that straddles mainstream hard-hitting beats and an unconventional, experimental rap sound. The stage was set for the group to be stars at the release of its third record.
No one seemed to be having a better time than Killer Mike and El-P. They were smiling, cracking up, high-fiving and breaking into dorky dance moves. The show, technically a celebration of the new album release, signified so much more. After a lifetime of toiling in the underground rap world, they were finally becoming household names. Whoever heard of two grown men in their 40s becoming the next big thing in hip-hop?
The duo had no shame in enjoying their star status. The DJ brought the two rappers to the sounds of Queen’s “We are the Champions.” The crowd lit up when they appeared onstage. Nearly every pair of hands shot up and made the official Run The Jewels hand signal: one hand shaped like a gun, the other a closed fist.
It was almost comical how jovial Killer Mike and El-P were during the hourlong set of hard-pounding beats, as they spit fiery verses. (“We are the murderous pair / that went to jail, and we murdered the murderers there.”) As much as the music amazed, there was something spectacular about two artists basking in the kind of success they never expected to have, and sharing it with their fans.