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Soul Cannon Give Themselves Some Hard Acts To Follow

April 28, 2008

When local hip-hop band Soul Cannon played a release party for its new album at the Ottobar on Friday, it made a decision that could be interpreted as either really smart or really unwise: booking two opening bands that have fervent local followings and reputations as great live acts. Sure, the inclusion of Pittsburgh rap duo Grand Buffet and Tennessee transplants J-Roddy Walston and the Business helped pack the house for Soul Cannon’s big night, but the headliner also ran the risk of being blown off the stage by the support acts.

Grand Buffet has been playing shows here so consistently for the past six or seven years, winning fans with its bizarre, frequently hilarious stage show and collaborating with numerous Baltimore artists, that the duo is as much of a draw as any local act. Still, it’s rare for it to appear at the bottom of a bill at the Ottobar, and the room was a long way from full when it opened the Friday show, its first local performance since the release of its latest album, King Vision, less of an event than expected. Thankfully, the group was on top of its game and didn’t let a sparse crowd slow it down, the two band members displaying their almost Laurel and Hardy-esque duo dynamic: the stoic, potbellied Lord Grunge and the wiry, red-haired Grape-A-Don, who possesses an intense stare and the stronger rapping skills of the two.

When Grand Buffet played a number of tracks from King Vision at the Ottobar last March, the album hadn’t yet been released, and it was hard to get a handle on the unfamiliar material. After a couple months with it, however, Vision‘s cuts sit comfortably alongside reliable crowd-pleasers such as “Americus (Religious Right Rock),” and based on the reaction that it got Friday, “Cream Cheese Money” may be the newest fan favorite in Grand Buffet’s catalog. But its set also featured some more unexpected treats, like an onstage cameo by local rapper Height, who performed with Grand Buffet on “Bad Weather,” their collaboration from his 2007 album Winterize the Game. Grand Buffet’s rendition of “Millpatty” over a new beat, which was composed of a loop of the Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels,” turned out to be a preview from Escape From Anthony Baboon’s Nautical Playhouse, a self-released EP of sample-based remixes the group had available at the merch table.

Walston and his band relocated to Baltimore in 2004 from Tennessee and quickly amassed a local following, but for some reason I got it in my head that they wouldn’t be my cup of tea and never made the effort to check them out. So on Friday night, I pretty much stood with arms folded ready to resist the band’s charms, even when they opened their set with a spot-on rendition of Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls.” Any cover of that song that doesn’t completely butcher it would probably be the best song in most bands’ repertoire. So we were knocked flat on our ass when that actually turned out to be the low point of the Business’ set.

It’s hard not to fawn over just how fantastic the band is, how captivating and electric Walston is as a frontman as he pounds his piano and screeches away, without sounding like Jon Landau raving about the first time he saw Bruce Springsteen. That’s not to make any kind of comparison or call Walston and his band’s Southern-fried retro sound the future of rock ‘n’ roll; they were just so balls-out fun to watch, with massive sing-along and guitar licks powering every song forward with relentless momentum, that I can’t help but evangelize a little.

So it pretty much goes without saying that no matter how good Soul Cannon was that night, and it was quite good, it just couldn’t help coming off anti-climactic after Grand Buffet and, especially, the Business. Frontman Ezekiel “Eze” Jackson is a skilled rapper and charismatic performer, and his band laid down dense, quirky backdrops that gave Soul Cannon a more unique sound than the usual generic live funk feel that most instrument-playing hip-hop bands that aren’t the Roots end up with. And it was exciting to hear Matt Frazao, the guitarist who previously left a big impression on us with his other group, the MacGregor Burns Band, in a different musical context. But I couldn’t help losing interest in Soul Cannon’s set much faster than we probably would’ve on any other night, with any other opening acts to compare them to.

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