New contributor Karl Arney provides us with the play-by-play of a Killer concert. Stay tuned for more from and about Karl!
Genesis Owusu’s debut album last year, Smiling With No Teeth, is the best 2021 release I’ve heard. With it, the Ghanaian-Australian dropped a head-spinning, pan-genre flex that joins a proud lineage of “I can do it all” masterpieces that also includes Beck’s Odelay and Janelle Monae’s The Archandroid, jumping adeptly from neo-soul and anthemic rock and roll to woozy hip-hop and scathing punk rock without ever seeming like it’s lost the thread. He came to Philly’s Underground Arts on Thursday, March 30 and brought the thing to life with a laser-focused mix of artful vision and incendiary energy.
Owusu deserves to be playing far bigger venues, but I was glad to get him at Underground Arts. The basement venue, still thankfully independent of Live Nation, brings in a great assortment of up-and-comers, indie fixtures, stand-ups, and live podcasts at reasonable prices and minimal ticket fees. It’s also turned into the place that makes sure I get to see the niche international artists that rev my engine – two months after I got into Japanese psych-rock masters Kikagaku Moyo in 2019, they turned up at Underground Arts. Which brings us back to Mr. Owusu, who I discovered in the wake of Smiling With No Teeth last year and from whom I had absolutely zero clue what to expect in a live setting.
Before I found out, I caught the back end of opening act and one-man dub machine Pachyman’s set. I showed up late and when I walked in to still hear his spacey beats and synths, figured I was catching the set closer. He even followed the song with the kind of heavy thanks to the audience that usually indicates a farewell or set break. But either he had started later than announced or was given a whopper of an opening slot, because I still got three more luxuriously paced groovers. Pachyman (real name Pachy Garcia) glowed on stage, partly because he was basked in yellow by his stage lights and wearing sunglasses, but mostly because he grinned from ear to ear and grooved hard to the musical stew he was creating for about 95% of his time on stage. At one point he broke down for us how the boards he was manipulating throughout the set work – he recorded the parts himself and then sampled them, splitting the guitar, bass, and drum sounds up by columns of knobs. He also played a melodica and plenty of synthesizer, the latter of which bordered between cheesy New Age sounds and genuinely heady explorations, but thankfully favored the latter.
He had fans in the audience, too – I saw at least two people walking around with vinyl copies of his 2021 The Return Of…; whether they had brought them from home in hopes of scoring an autograph or had picked them up at the minimal merch table was unclear because, at least by the time I got there, the only merchandise to be had was from the headliner. Pachyman kept us on our toes with effusive thanks after each song, even coming out for that rarest of concert events, an encore by an opener – but within half an hour of my arrival, he did call it a night to make way for the main event.
I said earlier that I had no idea what to expect from Owusu’s live show and I meant it – I remarked to my girlfriend on the way that I didn’t know if he’d have a live band or be using pre-recorded backing tracks. I’ll take a band over no band at concerts an overwhelming majority of the time, having seen the way live instruments can add dynamism to hip-hop as well as more traditionally instrumental genres. So it could have been a bad sign when Owusu emerged onto a dark stage as a recording of Kids See Ghosts’ “Feel the Love” faded out and soon went into “What Do I Fear?”, a cut from the expanded, deluxe edition of SWNT flanked by three unexpected dancers but no band. It could have been a bad sign, if he hadn’t torn into the opener so intensely and immediately transfixed the crowd of what I would guess was in the 50 – 70 person range. There was a theatricality to his set that I hadn’t foreseen, despite the fact that SWNT has clearly unifying themes and recurring references to “black dogs” with whom Owusu’s narrators identify. On stage, that manifested in the three dancers, who started the night looking not far from gimps and who would rush in at certain points to dramatically reach for or lay hands on Owusu, who would shrink down to a standing crouch when they did. And it manifested in our man’s outfit evolving from including some of the bandages that cover his face on the SWNT cover before eventually pealing them off and finally emerging for the encore with a sharp new red jacket.
Owusu’s performance ran for 14 songs, but was captivating on a level that made it feel like he’d fit even more in. He included 11 of the 15 tracks from his album proper, including all of the ones I consider essential, and reached a bit deeper for the aforementioned opener as well as “Void” from his first release that I’m aware of, 2017’s Cardrive EP, and the full-throttle disco number “”WUTD” he released on a stand-alone single in 2019. Even without live instruments, Owusu was enough of a showman to make sure that the deep cuts weren’t all that made the show a unique experience from just listening to SWNT – “Waitin On Ya,” the album gem that he took his bandages off during, appeared with an extended breakdown in the middle that emphasized a drum and bass influence and found the performer improvising some vocals over top, or at least delivering something I’d never heard from. That kind of attention to the audience experience and keeping things fresh, combined with the rabid energy Owusu and his crew brought for the entire show, is what made this probably the best no-band (non-DJ) set I’ve seen since A Tribe Called Quest’s headlining set at Pitchfork Music Festival 2017 in the wake of Phife Dawg’s death.
Owusu and I were on the same page as far as his generous encore went, too – halfway into the main set, I hopefully predicted that SWNT’s most immediately engaging song, “Don’t Need You” and its post punk-inflected arena rock epic “Drown” would make up the encore. Lo and behold, those were the two songs we got when he retook the stage, with a joyfully goofy partial cover of Soldja Boy’s 2007 megahit “Crank That” tacked on to the end of “Don’t Need You.” Where I had underestimated him was in thinking we’d only get a two-song encore – along with the now-unmasked dancers (who just as often by this point served as rap-style hype/emphasis men), Owusu gave us three more late-album tracks, delighting in the hot crowd that was more than willing to go into call and response on chants like “we all hate Nazi scum” whenever its honored guest was of the mind. He’d earned it, after all, having held a weeknight crowd captivated in the palm of his hand for a solid hour through the potent combo of killer songs, boundless energy, and sheer force of charisma.