Over a week ago now, I went to see Flobots play Higher Ground. I've been occupied with another writing assignment since, but I wanted to fill you all in before I go ahead and forget; that band is amazing.
I know what you're probably thinking. The band that sings that handlebars song? Yes. That band.
A few months ago a friend of mine fell victim to a Buzz cut, and bought the Flobots CD. After giving it a listen, he gave me a call.
"You would love this," he told me. "It's all political!"
Like other glassy-eyed radio listeners, I had completely missed the point of "Handlebars" the first few times I heard it. That being — the discovery of power and the subsequent abuse of it. A perfect example being our current president, who rides a bike with no handlebars in that he leads our country with no sense of proper steering.
So I went over to my friend's house to check out the music. And he was right. I liked it. I tend to like any music working for social change, but radical hip hop is a favorite, mostly because in spite of liking the sound of most hip hop, I fail to connect to the genre in any of its other incarnations.
I made plans to attend the August 11 Higher Ground show, even knowing that the crowd would likely be filled with naive teeny-bopper "Handlebars" fans. The good news is that, in the end, even the crowd pleasantly surprised me that night.
Arriving at Higher Ground, I had my bag searched — maybe because of the featured bands? But the girl who searched me had no problem with me taking my pepper spray inside. On the other hand, she did confiscate the cigarettes of a boy I met later. So apparently pepper spray is OK in a crowded ballroom, but cigarettes are not.
The show was sold out — and to fans of all ages. There were plenty of teenagers, but the back bar was packed with the 21+ crowd, and the right side wall had a line of ten-year olds standing on chairs to get a better view. I can only hope I will one day be as cool a parent as those that carted their eager children to the show, including (no surprise!) Seven Days' own political columnist, Shay Totten.
Opening the night was Busdriver, a one man Los Angeles hip hop act, whose muffled lyrics made him hard to judge. My friend confessed that the songs on the myspace page were much more impressive and I lamented that such is often the case with hip hop. As such a highly produced genre, it is always interesting to see how an act will hold up live. The truth of Busdriver was that one man with backing tracks can be swallowed by the Higher Ground Ballroom. And he was.
Next up was People Under the Stairs, a Los Angeles hip-hop duo that has been making a name for themselves, most notably in the UK, since the mid-90's. Their experience was evident in their stage presence as they excited the large crowd, which had grown notably restless during the previous act. Plus, their act included an impressive display of old school beat boxing.
Not only did People Under the Stairs engage the crowd, they involved it, with call and response choruses, and some light hearted joshing during interludes. Hip hop is the only musical genre where you can self-promote and get away with it, and People Under the Stairs mastered a seamless inclusion of their name, their newest album's name, and its drop date.
It was at this point during the show that I looked around the room and realized that the Vermont crowd deserved a lot more credit than I had originally given them. They were not Flobots one-hit-wonder fans. They were hip-hop fans. And they knew all the words to the People Under the Stairs set to prove it.
[The crowd also deserved more credit than the girl in the bathroom gave them. The girl who was used to hip-hop shows in Brooklyn and now found herself "embarrassed to be white." Hey, lady! You were still white when you were in Brooklyn, no matter who you surrounded yourself with! And also, tell your friend with the cigarette that there's no need to stink up the bathroom. It's not like they are carding in the smoking area outside.]
When Flobots finally took the stage, the crowd was more than ready for them, cheering loudly before Johnny Utah could finish his Buzz cut introduction. The set started with "Same Thing", track 3 from their album, Fight with Tools, and the energy was infectious as the crowd sang along.
We say yes to grassroots organization
No to neoliberal globalization
Bring the troops back to the USA
and shut down Guantanamo Bay!
While the other acts of the evening had relied on backing tracks (certainly not at all shameful at a hip-hop show), Flobots came with a full band, and stood out as more impressive for that reason. Of course most impressive was their use of viola, which added an almost haunting sound to the already heavy lyrics.
Another highlight of the set was "Stand Up", track 4 off the album, with lyrics encouraging solidarity against what we believe to be wrong. Flobots also covered "So Happy Together" by the Turtles, encouraging the crowd to jump up and down along with the song. The encore would later feature another cover, of Pat Benetar's "Heartbreaker".
The speeches between songs were just as encouraging and eloquent as the rhymes themselves. Flobots asked the crowd to remember to support our Veterans, even those overseas, because they have opinions too. They also urged their listeners to look to the American flag as a flag for the future, one that represents our hope, efforts, and dreams. They asked us to stop waiting for the America we long for, but to instead fight for it and make it right now.
And then came "Handlebars".
While I had thought of the song in the most cynical light possible, assuming that it was made a hit only by the thoughtless requests of kids who liked Cake, and a song about bike riding, Flobots managed to put a political spin even on their one-hit success.
The band's two emcees talked about how people calling in and requesting a song until it rises in the charts is just one example of people making something happen.
"Burlington," they asked the crowd. "If we get together, do you believe we can build a better world together?" As the band was met with the loudest cheers of the night thus far, the viola player started her plucking to begin the hit song.
I'm not sure what it is about politically motivated music, but I always leave shows of this nature feeling so incredibly inspired. Last Monday was no exception. I would be lying if I said that I didn't think of my little unborn niece and how I can only hope that with Bush out of office, we can start to turn this country around to create a better tomorrow for her. Lofty goals for a girl in Vermont, sure, but if a commercial radio station is now playing a buzz cut that brings me to that state of mind, then there really must be hope for us after all.
And if you blew off this band because of its commercial success, I urge you to give them another listen. You might just find yourself politically inspired as well.