Monday, May 12, 2008

M.I.A. got the crowd involved and turned the Aragon into a Carnivale-worthy event

Saturday night, a decidedly younger crowd gathered for M.I.A.’s concert at the Aragon Ballroom. A mother passed off tickets to her son and his friends in the lobby, their embarrassment palpable. “Mom,” you could almost hear him whine through his braces as she waved her goodbyes. “We got this, ok? Gawd!”

People streamed past security and the merchandise booths, eager to find a spot close to the stage or form chatting and dance circles with friends. This being my first time at Aragon, I wasn’t prepared for the wildly spacious venue, accented with fairy tale castle architecture and turrets acting as balcony seating, a cosmic mural on the ceiling, and a very large stage.

Exactly at 7:30, the opening act walked on stage, their heads down and trained on the instruments in front of them. The four-piece group immediately launched into their 40-minute set, crowding around each other. Their instruments combined to form an experimental-electronica sound you wouldn’t feel silly dancing to. Save for the “wah wah wahs” produced from a tube placed in the keyboardist’s mouth, there was no singing, only the crash of drums, synths, and other electronica staples mixed with more mundane sounds—at one point the sound deck produced a sound similar to a stalled engine being turned over. After a two second pause a member tells us the band is called Holy Fuck and that they hail from Toronto. And then back to work. Aragon’s PA system hindered Holy Fuck at times, causing high pitched screeches we weren’t sure were feedback or part of their master plan, but overall the music was enjoyable and set the dance party tone for the evening.

After their set, Chicago’s own Million $ Mano got behind a DJ deck decked out with miniature flags bearing M.I.A.’s iconic face from her latest album, Kala. He hyped up the crowd, starting off with 80’s electro-pop staples like “Tainted Love” before moving on to the golden days of R&B with Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison.” We all sang along—most of the people in the audience born well after the New Edition offshoot made the hit. Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E” and Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” (sampled on Kanye West’s “Stronger”) brought the crowd to a fever pitch. Then Mano created a tribute to Chicago’s finest in hip-hop, bringing in the juke beats the city is so well known for mixed with Kanye West and Kid Sister.

Ending his set with the Cool Kids’ “Black Mags,” Mano retreated backstage; the crowd grew anxious for M.I.A. to end the night. Twenty minutes passed and we grew antsy, agitated. “I don’t get it,” an annoyed blonde next to me seethed to her boyfriend. “Is she just like, sitting around back there?” Thirty minutes went by before we saw life on the stage, in the form of three projected images. A balding, pissed off looking Asian man was addressing us via subtitles. He says we must destroy this country; that elections don’t mean anything; that the majority wants to keep things as they are: very, very shitty. He speaks to the minority, the people who realize that change comes from destruction of the majority’s regime. His voice grows angrier and his expression all the more dour before flipping us the bird. I don’t know who the speaker’s original audience was, but his message is applicable to today’s state of affairs, no doubt. Whether my fellow audience members see this and approve, or are just excited the concert is finally starting, I don’t know.

M.I.A. finally galloped onto stage with her two cohorts: a muscular woman in a red wig and psychedelic print tights and a man who I mistake for Mikey of the Cool Kids with his lanky body, skinny jeans, and old school baseball cap. Dressed in a red sequined tank dress over black lame leggings and a t-shirt, M.I.A. and her crew danced, sang, and threw plastic horns into the frenzied crowd. With the flashing lights and M.I.A.’s world music infused tracks, Aragon was transformed into a market place during Carnivale. The highlight of the evening came when M.I.A. performed “Boyz” from Kala, asking “all the ladies in the house” to get on the stage. The audience surged forward as girls clamored to get on stage. What transpired can only be described as a dance orgy, women of all shapes, colors, and sizes grinding away to the horns blaring. M.I.A. got in the groove as well, bending over and shaking for all to see. At one point, with arguably over 75 women on the stage, someone tripped a wire and left M.I.A. barely audible. But it was all in good fun as tech brought back the music and security spent 5 minutes ushering people off stage. -Anthonia Akitunde