With Jurassic 5 now absent from the stagnant alt-rap scene, a well-medicated, long-maned dude staggering up to the rail and yelling “Fucking Chali 2na!” would, at any other show, have been the least surprising event of the night. After all, this was the guy who carried the Jurassic 5 name on his shoulders, and whose name on the Harmony Festival poster three years after the group’s split may well have sold as many tickets as headliner Slightly Stoopid. But as Chali 2na’s NBA frame emerged onto the Mystic Beat Lounge stage to join San Francisco’s Jazz Mafia in Santa Rosa, CA for the encore to Friday night’s “Brass, Bows, & Beats” performance, so much excitement for such a small percentage of such an eclectic show felt out of place.
What had transpired in the preceding hour and a half was nothing short of a spectacle. It was more than a hip-hop show; you might even say it wasn’t a hip-hop show. Composed and arranged by Santa Rosa-raised Adam Theis, “Brass, Bows, & Beats” is just what you’d expect from the title: a 45-piece string and brass orchestra, a DJ, and some MC’s performing a mixture of hip-hop, jazz, funk, big band, and classical music. Special guests joining the Jazz Mafia on this particular night were the aforementioned Chali 2na and Berkeley rapper Lyrics Born.
But while the special guests were clearly the draw, they certainly were not the focus. That said, it’s hard to say who was. At times, there were so many people coming onto and off of the stage it was hard to tell who was singing, who was playing violin, and who was just a roadie (all were dressed in street clothes). Truly, the focus was not on the “who” but the “what” — the Jazz Mafia worked so well as a unit, and vocalists felt like accompaniments as often as they did frontmen.
Still, most people were there because they wanted to see some hip-hop, and while “Beats” were not as prominent as advertised, the show was not lacking in hip-hop credibility. Despite having the stage presence of a used car salesman and sporting a Conan O’Brien haircut, Jazz Mafia rapper Dublin can really hold his own next to the likes of Lyrics Born and Chali 2na. If hip-hop weren’t so ethnocentric, a dorky, White, very talented San Francisco MC in a business suit might have a chance. The marquee names were in and out of the show, but when they were in they were on (for the most part — turn up Lyrics Born’s mic!). The orchestra learned some of Lyrics Born and Chali 2na’s solo material, and played selections off of the latter’s Fish Outta Water and some new and old stuff by the former.
Which brings us to the main weakness in the show. As well-crafted as the “Brass, Bows, & Beats” live show is, none of the compositions are very memorable save for “At My Window”. The sweeping symphonic backing is there, the solos are on point*, and the singers are talented — but no one walked away from Harmony Fest Friday night thinking he had to get the album. Most fans will remember that they played Lyrics Born’s “Callin’ Out” but couldn’t hum three notes from the main event.
The show has the potential to be unforgettable, but it hasn’t quite reached that level yet. However, it is entertaining, original, and masterfully arranged, and something to see at least once. Theis says in a promotional video for his show, “One of our main goals is to put San Francisco music back on the map internationally.” You can’t fault his ambition, and if there’s any word that sums up “Brass, Bows, & Beats” it is that. Beaming on stage Friday, trombone held high, Theis had the look of someone realizing his ambitions.
* Violin duels are extremely fun to watch, and should happen more often.
Photography by Angeline Quintilla.