Disco hip-hop and a master whistler

Coming off a successful fall concert in 2005 with Talib Kweli and J-Live, AB Concerts signed Phantom Planet and The Secret Machines to co-headline its spring concert. But with a sudden strike of bad weather that forced a last-minute move into the Wiegand Gym, attendance was poor, and the university’s response lackluster. Add on a funding cut from the Carnegie Mellon administration, and all of a sudden, AB Concerts was stuck in a rut.

But things are looking up for AB Concerts and student life: This Friday night will be Carnegie Mellon’s annual fall concert, and we are treated this year with rap group extraordinaire Blackalicious as the concert’s headliner and singer-songwriter Andrew Bird as the opener. The mix of acts, although lacking in cohesion, will bring the hip-hop and the alt-rock/hipster crowds at Carnegie Mellon together for the first time in years.

Blackalicious, which hails from the Bay area, has five records to its name. And although often grouped together with more mainstream acts for which it has opened in the past (The Roots, Public Enemy), Blackalicious is more like The Perceptionists and Sole, a stripped-down mixture of funky drumming, earthy bass lines, and a sprinkle of keys as texture. The lyrics, too, are less mainstream; they tell stories and sing uplifting messages. Both are rare in today’s hip-hop world. On 2002’s Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious boldly mixes neo-soul, afrobeat, and West Coast rap together. With special guests ranging from Ben Harper to Gil-Scott Heron to Cut Chemist, Blazing Arrow proved Blackalicious was — and still is — a musically ambitious group to be taken seriously.

On 2005’s The Craft, Blackalicious makes a push into pop and even disco-influenced hip-hop. Chock full of synthesizers, clavinets, strings, and heavy reverb throughout, The Craft is no less impressive but more accessible than Blazing Arrow. And just when you think Blackalicious has abandoned its innovative roots, MC Gift of Gab raps, “Never let ’em hold you back from anything you want now / Life is but a ride, so find them treasures that are unfound,” letting us know that redefinition, and not monotony, is their driving force.

Equally stylized and fresh is Chicagoan Andrew Bird, who, although trained classically on violin, has gained unprecedented street cred from alternative music press all over the globe. After breaking off from his group, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, he immediately began generating buzz for his 2003 release, Weather Systems. Both a talented songwriter and master instrumentalist (... and whistler), Bird is equally lauded for his energetic and outrageous live performances. On “Dark Matter,” armed with an electric guitar, a glockenspiel, his whistling, and ever-contagious croon, Bird pounds his way through sonic cacophony, and on “First Song,” Bird plucks, bows, whistles, and sings through folk-y chords and eerie vocal melodies.

Friday night’s show is sure to be a great one. With strong attendance and community support, it will put AB Concerts back on the map as a savvy part of AB, well connected to both the industry and the student body. And if we’re lucky, the concert could put Carnegie Mellon — and even the city of Pittsburgh — back on the map as a go-to city for popular touring artists.