Before Sage Francis took the stage at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis on Saturday night, I was skeptical. I didn't know much about him, but I wanted to get tickets so I would have an article to write. Luckily, I won entry and a +1 from First Avenue via Twitter and had my Saturday night plans set in stone. I didn't use my +1 after a friend cancelled on me earlier in the day. Instead, I went alone, which I have done to concerts before, with minimal expectations willing to be immersed in a new experience.
The crowd for the show was sparse, especially for the openers. By the time Sage Francis took the stage (ten minutes late), an audience of about 700 gathered for the independent hip-hop artist's performance. With First Avenue's capacity at 1600, this was still a glass half-empty night for me. The curtain went up and the bass kicked in. A hypeman and DJ, both with shaved heads wearing all black, ominously took the stage behind a booth set up in front of a projector screen. Next, Sage Francis himself took the stage in similar fashion, adding a Strange Famous tapestry tied around his neck and worn as a cape, to a warm welcome from the relatively small crowd.
The warm welcome gave me a glimmer of hope that the show would go better than expected. After a few moments of basking in the reception, Francis dove immediately into a mix of old and new rhymes - dicing the themes of nationalism, war mongering, greed, and consumerism to pieces with ease like a chef preparing a salad with a freshly sharpened knife. The rhymes and style followed stream of consciousness I had not seen before. The songs rarely contain a hook or chorus, making it harder for newcomers and bystanders to catch on to the act - a telltale sign of Francis' unrelenting need for independence of both thought and business.
The unconventional song structure, however, seems to work in his favor. A barrage of messages increases fleeting moments of deep thought and cheer, keeping the audience hooked on the performance - a tool ironically used by an artist with anti-consumerist exposition.
As Francis states in a monologue between songs, "We are given the gift of a language that is then used against us." He then goes on to quote the famous 1984 passage, "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength."
Highlights of the night included, four songs in, Francis revealing his hair was only a wig and the performance of the controversial song "Makeshift Patriot."
I am concerned that Francis' decade-old, nearly tattered, Bush-era protests may fail to drive a new fan base. To succeed in the future, Francis must reshape his independently-minded themes into a new message that resonates in today's surveillance-state, post-recession era. But in the moment, I was impressed with the artist's ability to take a minimal stage and audience and deliver a spontaneity-driven, thought-provoking, yet diligent, performance. By then end of the night, the room was no longer hanging at half mast.
Touring in support of his new album Copper Gone, Francis' stop at First Avenue on Saturday night broke a four year absence from the city.
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