San Francisco Bathhouse, Wellington
Thursday 11 December 2014
On his first world tour in four years, Sage Francis has come on a “Middle-earth excursion”, headed back to New Zealand to promote his latest album, Copper Gone.
I arrived late to the gig with hope of missing Andrew WK lookalike Alphabethead. Not late enough, it seems. I had to sit through almost an hour of his set. My friend pointed out that I looked miserable, staring at the floor. It was an accurate assessment. I would go out of my way to avoid seeing Alphabethead again.
Sage Francis arrived on stage wearing a large black habit, a white hood and a cape a made from a Strange Famous banner. The cape helped turn Francis into a wizard, a master magician who casts a spell over the audience, as suggested in his opening song, “Escape Artist”.
The reason Francis is so captivating is because he pours so much of himself into his performance. And it is a performance, not just some bearded white guy talking fast into a microphone. He sings, he dances, he pretends to play harmonica. There is a projector displaying some pictures and animations in the background, but they aren’t a focal point. Francis projects a persona that’s larger than life (you could say “EXTRA, EXTRA LAARGE!“)
There’s also a wide variety within the music. Some backing tracks are stereotypical hip-hop beats, but most are musical, and some songs are even a capella. He raps over the Nine Inch Nails song “Closer”, and an 8-bit adaptation of the Pixies song “Where is My Mind?”. The funniest is the theme song from the movie Team America: World Police, that he uses to introduce “Makeshift Patriot”, his critique of American patriotism in response to terrorist propaganda.
When I saw Immortal Technique at the same venue a few years ago the mix was too muddy and a lot vocals were hard to make out. Thankfully, this time the acoustics were good and I could actually tell what Francis was saying.
And this is important, especially with a rap music, where it all rides on what you say and how you deliver it. Francis injects so much feeling into his music. He shouts and he whispers. Songs like “Make Em Purr”, “Thank You” and “Best Of Times” expose him as open and vulnerable, offering up his secrets for show. He portrays real emotion, something that is vital for creating a true connection with the audience.
Francis ended his set with a group hug, before selling merch out of his backpack just in front of the stage, like a true an independent artist.
Sage Francis is 55 years old. He has a wealth of experience to draw from, both on stage and in real life. He may not be the best singer or have the flashiest setup, but he commands the stage like the veteran he is, armed with sharp rhymes and a microphone. His fans love him for his talent, his wit, his realness and enthusiasm. And last night in Wellington that’s exactly what they got.