Open Mike Eagle doesn’t look like he’s trying too hard, but let’s remember all those old cliches about deceiving appearances and books and their covers for a sec.
The Chicago-born, L.A.-based rapper presents himself in an unglamorous, everyday context that’s more typical of stand-up comedians than musicians with their auras of mystique and larger-than-life theatrics and whatnot. Plus, he’s funny. That also makes him comedian-ish. Wednesday (February 7) at The Sinclair in Cambridge, a mid-set digression into a live advice column wrapped abruptly when a volunteer from the audience asked how to stop being broke. Eagle told him to get a job, and immediately resumed performing rap songs. That kind of unexpected brevity will bust a gut or two, lemme tell ya.
A bit later, Eagle workshopped an unfinished track about eating non-edible substances such as, if memory serves, a sweater. When you combine all that low-key spontaneity, the overall condition of maximum chill insisted upon by the tunes themselves — most pertinently, those included on last year’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream — and the fact that Open Mike Eagle kept his feet planted firmly in front of the table supporting his laptop for his first half of his set, you get an ostensibly slack-tastic sonic endeavor.
However, no solo rapper captivates a room full of Cambridge-area college kids who mostly showed up to see the headliner (in this case, WHY?) without some serious-ass gumption.
I’m probably not the only listener who found Open Mike Eagle’s habit of namechecking superheros (“Very Much Money,” “Brick Body Complex”), pro wrestling (“No Selling”), teen melodrama (“Degrassi Picture Day”) anime (“Password”), and Broken Social Scene (“Raps For When It’s Just You And The Abyss”) handy as a jumpoff point into the rest of his catalogue. I like all of those things! In of itself, peppering his rhymes with pop culture references hardly makes him unique. Although Eagle is the only artist in any medium to toss a tribute to Sting (the wrestler) into a music video about gentrification by slapping The Scorpion Death Lock on an evil real estate developer.
I dunno who originally sent us all the message that protest art wasn’t allowed to be fun, but it seems a substantial swath of hip-hop “accidentally” marked that metaphorical email as metaphorical “spam,” praise be to Jebus.
Touring behind their entirely listenable Moh Lhean, stately Cincinnati indie rock-ish, hip-hop-ish outfit WHY? fulfilled their top-of-the-marquee duties following Eagle’s performance. WHY? has been touring and releasing albums — sometimes of the critically-acclaimed variety — since 2005 (or 1997, if you count vocalist Yoni Wolf’s tenure using “WHY?” as his solo artist nomme de guerre). So it follows they’re a thoroughly-oiled live act, and at least a handful of people amongst the 500-some-odd folks who come to see them on a given night will be visibly familiar with old WHY? lyrics.
And while it’s kinda hard not to be impressed with WHY?’s collective multi-instrumentalism (a drummer who also plays the bass in the same band? BLASPHEMY!) and the fact that all four members have keyboard/electronic elements to supplement their analogue tasks (I think?), an outsider who principally showed up for Open Mike Eagle might say, “This is pretty okay, I guess, but aren’t they just doing quirky-yet-entirely approachable B+ modern rock with a bunch of bells & whistles? Where’s the fucking grit? Y’know?”
That same outsider might find out on Wikipedia later that Glenn Howerton is a WHY? superfan, and if they’ve truly won over Dennis Reynolds, then they certainly don’t need to worry about winning everybody else over.
Open Mike Eagle photo by Barry Thompson; follow him on Twitter @barelytomson.