Night of Sights and Sounds with Saul Williams
At Kinetic Playground
A Lethal Poetry Production
Review and Photos by CJ Laity
I got invited to A Night of Sights and Sounds with Saul Williams, a poetry themed event that took place on Saturday, March 27, 2010, at a place called Kinetic Playground, 1113 W. Lawrence, right across the street from the Aragon Ballroom, so I went to check it out. Here are my thoughts about the evening.
Uptown is just as mad-crazy as it ever is on a Saturday night, perhaps more-so because Stone Temple Pilots is playing at the Riviera right around the corner. The Sights and Sounds poetry show is produced by Lethal Poetry, a fairly new company that is also the brains behind the monthly Words That Kill spoken word performances. Lethal Poetry is also in the process of resurrecting the idea of a Chicago Poetry Festival with something called Outspoken that will take place later this year.
I have been meaning to check out a Lethal Poetry event for a long time, ever since I got a taste of what they are capable of at last year's Humboldt Park Art Fest. They've been making all the right connections, are completely optimistic and energetic in the pursuit of their goals, and they are, well, simply nice people. So this Night of Sight and Sound seems to be the perfect opportunity to witness Lethal Poetry take on its most ambitious project yet.
I arrive early and am surprised to see a group of people who are already outside the venue waiting for the doors to open.
This mega-show received fantastic press coverage from just about every publication in town, something that is nearly unheard of in the world of poetry. And good thing too, because Lethal Poetry is taking a huge gamble, literally putting it all on the line, having booked some of the top spoken-word artists around and also promising to give a portion of the proceeds to the charity Rock For Kids. They certainly need as much encouragement and press as they can get, if they are going to pull this thing off. I have to admire the spirit but I also know there are no guarantees in the poetry world.
As soon as I walk through the door I know it is going to be a wild night.
The energy in the joint is amazing. Music is already playing and people are already dancing. I recognize a bunch of familiar poetry faces and the schmoozing begins.
I'm already having a good time, but I still have to wonder if the energy alone is going to be enough to sustain this daring six hour presentation that promises to present poetry as if it is a huge concert event. My skepticism diminishes as Kinetic Playground becomes packed with people as the night progresses.
From the very beginning I suspect that this is going to be one of the coolest poetry experiences of all time. Many forms of art are being presented at A Night of Sight and Sounds, including a body painter . . .
. . . and live artist
It becomes apparent that this evening is very professionally thought out. It moves along smoothly with hardly a glitch. It's as if Lethal Poetry thought of everything. For example, DJ Itch 13 keeps things grooving in between the poets and bands so that there is never a dull moment.
One of the delights of the night is watching Luis Tubens host the event. He doesn't lose an ounce of energy throughout the entire night. This is the first time I'm experiencing Tubens on stage. I really enjoy hearing his own poetry, much of it about Puerta Rican food, that he recites whenever there is some dead air time. He also does a wonderful rendition of Carl Sandburg's "Chicago" poem by memory.
The show begins with a demonstration of movement as expression. The B-Boy Battle involves six break dancers who give it their all for twenty minutes. Judges then eliminate three of them and the remaining three dance for another ten minutes, until the winner, PI-88, is announced.
A poet named Brando opens up the microphone with some political poetry. His poetry is original and well-written and his performance of it is captivating. If this is the opening act, I wonder what else this evening has in store for me.
Next, a spoken-word / jazz fusion band called Organic Flow does a set for the crowd.
The unofficial theme for the evening is the connection between music and poetry, and even though Hip Hop is a huge part of this ongoing theme, including a set by D-Nick The Microphone Misfit, the evening's entertainment is not limited to rappers.
One of the highlights of the night is a raunchy, hilarious, good old fashioned blues performance by BB King's daughter Shirley King.
After a couple of hours of watching non-stop performances on the stage, I figure I will give myself a little break, but there is no escaping the sights and the sounds. Performers are stationed in the most unexpected places.
The festivities even pour out onto the street. This "mini-festival of the arts" is quickly proving itself to be not so "mini" after all.
Once I'm back inside, I'm happy to see that performance poetry is being given the attention it deserves. Too often, when poetry is mixed with music, the music tends to become the dominate aspect of the show. Often, in poetry open mics for example, musicians are given ten minutes while poets are only given three minutes. It seems that Lethal Poetry is determined not to allow this to be the case tonight, because poetry remains the dominant force while the music serves only to compliment it. The music and other art forms force us to think about poetry on a whole new level.
Besides Gregory Pickett encouraging us not to worry about what is "left wing or right wing" but instead to think about what is the "right thing," the stage is also graced by Billy Tuggle. . .
and John Paul Davis.
The Mojdeh Project takes to the stage and, wow! They use found objects, including a satellite dish, a chain, a gas tank, a big piece of sheet metal and a thick spring as musical instruments to compliment their off the wall, punk-rock poetry performance art. When I think of Mojdeh performing her poetry into a bullhorn I think of a female Jello Biafra. The Mojdeh Project has come a long way since I saw them debut at the Poetry Fest at Mercury Cafe a few years ago.
Next, Aja Monet proves with her performance that she is one of the most insightful and wisely sensitive poets performing in today's thriving spoken word arena.
What would a big show like this be without a few poems from Kevin Coval, who is the founder of the Louder Than A Bomb teen poetry festival. With three poems, including one about Chicago as a really tough woman, Coval keeps his performance respectfully brief and concise, as there are still plenty of poets scheduled to grace the stage after him.
It's already about ten o'clock and I have been here since the beginning. My throat is dry and my old 45-year-old bones are aching from standing around and bopping to the beats. So I figure, things are going well, I have plenty of photos already, I'm my own boss, time for a nice stiff drink to get me through the next two hours. Since it's my first drink of the evening on an empty stomach I get pretty toasted pretty damn quickly, as intended.
Just then Mojdeh of Lethal Poetry approaches and she asks, "Do you want to interview Malik Yusef?" Well, sure. "Follow me," she says, and she begins walking toward the backstage area. I follow. Now I'm thinking, how cool is this person anyway, she's got a million things on her mind running this show and she still has time to show me such respect. But then I'm thinking, oh shit, I'm about to interview a Grammy award winning artist and I'm undeniably buzzed.
Next thing I know I'm in a room and Malik is sitting there looking a little gruff, being interviewed by some guy from Gaper's Block. It seems to me like the Gaper's Block guy isn't getting very far so I sit down and butt in. Now Malik and I are talking about the old days of the Chicago poetry scene, about long gone venues such as Spices and Lit X, about an old poetry band called the Funky Wordsmiths, about Quraysh Ali Lansana and Keith Kelly and Oscar Brown Jr , and Malik Yusef tells me about how he's from the "Wild Hundreds" on the Southside and how he's actually dyslexic, and about how he did his first poetry performance at the Green Mill in 1993 when he was 20 years old, and Malik Yusef gives me a free copy of his new CD and he poses for a photo.
And then I get the sudden urge to hug him as if he's an old pal but luckily I think to myself hey I'm pretty buzzed, I better not hug the dude or I might get socked on the jaw, so I shake his hand three different ways and thank him and I get up and split the scene, but not before giving Shirley King a big wet kiss on her cheek.
I'm back out in the bar and I'm thinking that went pretty well.
Then moments later Malik Yusef comes out onto the stage with his friend JV and he does a great set, performing some of his classics, including his award winning "crack music / black music" song and an extremely entertaining spoken-word song that uses the word "come" in many suggestive and not-so suggestive ways.
After Malik's performance a DJ, a VJ and an electronic music artist combine their talents for a session of experimental music.
And then Precise jumps up on stage. I've been wanting to see this dude ever since he e-mailed me a copy of his "Wild, Wild" song a few years ago. He's been a myspace friend of mine for years and I've been hearing his name popping up all over the place. So I think it is totally cool that I am finally getting a chance to see him perform. I am not disappointed. His hip-hop-pop is very inspiring and contains the positive message of accepting responsibility for our own actions. His music and words are reflective of what hip hop once was before gansta rap took over.
Of course, by the time Saul Williams comes to stage, it is really crowded and the fog machine is working full blast, so I can't get any really good photos with my little camera.
Saul is the perfect headliner for this awesome night of Sights and Sounds. It is very fitting that the final act is a poet reciting poetry with no musical accompaniment. Something happens as I listen to Saul Williams. I know right away that this is an important moment in my life and that this man represents truth. His performance is the embodiment of everything that has happened so far tonight. It all gets wrapped up by Saul's words of hope.
Words are music and music is alchemy
In conclusion, what I think about my night with Lethal Poetry at Kinetic Playground can be summed up by the following two words: GO MOJDEH!
But ya gotta do it more like: GO MOJDEH! GO MOJDEH! GO MOJDEH! GO MOJDEH!
This is CJ Laity, signing out . . .
Note: Here is a review and some photos from A Night of Sights and Sounds with Saul Williams.