Icicle Ball Warms Hearts and Minds

Undeterred by the fact that Boston had the misfortune to have its Icicle Ball cancelled, I ventured to the somewhat hallowed halls of New York city’s Hammerstein Ballroom, which was not so unlucky. Artist Direct’s Snocore mini-festivals have two different tours that run concurrently. The rock tour, which this year featured Alien Ant Farm and The Apex Theory, caters for the harder-headed listeners, while the romantically named Icicle Ball presents an eclectic mix of artists tending towards the more adventurous. This year’s Ball even featured poet Saul Williams on some of the stops.

The New York stop featured Bay Area rappers Blackalicious, making a comeback after a few years’ hiatus, as openers. Playing to a fairly sparse crowd, MC Gift of the Gab and DJ Chief Excel worked hard to raise a vibe that never entirely blossomed. Michael Franti of Spearhead had no such problem. Within seconds of his arrival onstage, he was pogo-ing his entire 6’6 length into the air, and the audience wasn’t long in joining him. Franti gives more to his audience than any other performer, his energy seamlessly carrying him and his band through hip hop, jazz and a strong gospel bent, evident on his last album Stay Human.

Franti even took a Bob Dylan turn, breaking out an acoustic guitar for a solo acoustic protest song circling around the lyric “We can bomb the world to pieces/ But we can’t bomb it into peace.” Franti makes no secret of his politics, and the audience, who outdid the music for eclecticism, was noisy in its approval.

Nikka Costa, third up, came across as an out-of-place flavour of the month sandwiched between seasoned performers. Not that both she and her band don’t ooze talent, but she seemed unsure where to go with her wrecking-ball of a voice after hitting top gear halfway through her second song. The band rushed around between instruments, but the effect was gimmicky, and the breakneck shifts from R&B; to thrashing rock chords were more disorienting than exhilarating.

Not so Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, who was the only event of the evening as far as some audience members (and the tapers up on the balcony) were concerned. Denson, who used to play sax with Lenny Kravitz but now fronts his own outfit, paced the stage like a panther, muscles bulging through his turtle-neck. Driven by the triple engine of his three percussionists, the energy was relentless, and Denson showed himself to be an impressive vocalist as well, barking and growling into the mic. Denson invited Franti and his MC Radio Active back to the stage for the high point of the evening, an extended jam that metamorphosed lithely from Denson’s acid jazz to Franti and Radio Active’s soul conscious rhyming.


Snocore Icicle Ball

Hammerstein Ballroom, NYC

March 28