LIVE REVIEW: Digable Planets, Portland, OR

This review is part of a series on MusicFest Northwest Presents: Project Pabst. This includes Guided By Voices and both Day One and Day Two of the main festival.

By Hollister Dixon

While waiting for Digable Planets to start, my show companion (Colin McLaughlin) and I had a long discussion about truly underrated hip-hop albums. For me, the band’s Blowout Comb – their second and final record, released in 1994 – is a shoe-in for that Top 10. Blowout Comb sounded like it was from the future back in ’94, and listening to it now it’s striking how ahead of its time it still sounds. At times, it feels as though the trio – made up of Butterfly (Ismael Butler, later of Shabazz Palaces), Ladybug Mecca (Mary Ann Vieira), and Doodlebug (Craig Irving) – built a time machine with the sole purpose of seeing what soul and funk sounded like in the 3070’s and bringing those vibes back to the 90s. The band broke up shortly after, though they’ve reunited sporadically in the 20 years since.

There’s always a worry that any reunion is a lazy cash-grab, done “for the money”. Let’s set the record straight, before we go on: if Digable Planets are playing for us again “for the money”, it presents an entirely compelling case for capitalism.

It would have been really easy for this show to be terrible. Big hip-hop shows have a tendency to verge on “clusterfuck” status, with stage times blown past and crowds that seem like they’ve never learned how to interact around strangers. The show flirted with not caring about those set times (Camp Lo, the show opener, was roughly 20 minutes late, as were Digable Planets), but nothing ever reached Snoop Dogg levels of lateness – and the crowd was mostly wonderful (though not nearly large enough). An undersold show is frequently the kiss of death for any show, but it became perfectly clear as the show went on that this was the best kind of reunion: one where the band performing could be playing to a completely empty room and still be bursting with joy and love for the music that they’ve made, and get to play together. It was evident the moment they began to take the stage to Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited”, or anytime you could see the enormous smile on Ladybug Mecca’s face – her almost constant state for the duration of the show.

Partway through the show, Dave Harris asked me, “Can we talk about how over hip-hop without a live band I am?” I’m in complete agreement with this sentiment. I’ve seen countless hip-hop shows over the years, and the ones that have stuck with me the most – Anderson .Paak, GZA, Miguel – have been ones where the performer decided to swap the typical DJ for a band, a real live band, playing the sounds you hear on the record. This isn’t to say a rapper needs a live band to succeed as a performer, but it’s impossible to ignore how much better it makes everything when they’ve got humans making those sounds onstage. Digable Planets, simply put, have too full of a sound to justify not bringing a full band along with them to play, and The Culprits – the hired guns Digable Planets brought with them to bring their future funk to life – were talented enough to justify the “Jungle Boogie” jam near the end of the show, as well as the five-minute drum solo that saw other members of the band slowly crowding around to watch it take place.

Towards the end of the show, the jams began to get longer and looser, which was an obvious side-effect of how much fun everyone onstage was having. I’m of two minds here: it’s easy to recognize these moments as a band letting loose, but it’s equally easy to pass these moments off as set padding, meant to artificially elongate a set. In the hands of a lot of other bands it would be just as easy to play the role of the cynic here and spend those jams with my eyes defiantly rolled straight back into my skull… but it’s hard to justify that level of cynicism when every single performer onstage is pretty open about the fact that there isn’t a single thing they’d rather be doing in that moment.

It’s easy to view every reunion with that same level of hypothetical eye-rolling cynicism that I could have employed watching Digable Planets noodle and jam onstage. With every year, the list of “Never getting back together” bands dwindles more and more, to the point where all we’re left with is The Smiths and The Beatles, and the odds that every one of those bands is doing it for purely artistic reasons are improbable at best. That said, when you watch a band that came back not for money, not for exposure, but because they couldn’t find a reason not to? That’s one of the most special feelings in the world.

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