“Look at that bird! That bird is so pretty y’all.” – Ghostface Killah
Ghostface Killah, founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan and one of the most respected rappers of all-time, was taken aback by the beauty of a seagull.
It was hard to blame Ghost for looking past the crowd to find beauty elsewhere. The hip-hop legend has a reputation for taking the stage late, but for his set at the inaugural NXNE Port Lands festival in Toronto, his tardiness became a necessity. Fifteen minutes after his scheduled start time, Ghost was nowhere to be found — presumably because there wasn’t much of a crowd to be found either. The jarring emptiness of the Port Lands — a gigantic, barren slab of concrete near Lake Ontario — had Ghost goin’ ghost.
30 minutes after Ghost was supposed to take the stage, Ghost’s long-time DJ ended the standoff. As DJ Tech began to hype up the still-tiny crowd, the Wu faithful started to file in. It wasn’t long after that Ghostface stormed the stage, and — realizing he had to win over the fickle crowd immediately — began his set with a bevvy of bangers. Between “One”, “Apollo Kids” and “Incarcerated Scarfaces”, the iconic rapper barely had time to take a breath.
Ghost employs a side-man at most of his solo shows, and for his NXNE set, it was Wu-Block cohort and Lox legend Sheek Louch picking up the slack. When not playing hype-man, Sheek deftly shifted to co-star, getting the crowd bumpin’ to “Money, Power, Respect” and “All About the Benjamins”.
In keeping with tradition at Ghostface shows, two audience members were invited onstage to help perform “Protect Ya Neck” at the end of the set. While the second volunteer slayed ODB’s iconic verse, the first guy, tasked with delivering Method Man’s beefy bars, succumbed to stage fright and bailed. The growing crowd was now big enough to make a grown man weep.
By the time Ghostface closed his set with “Cherchez La Ghost”, Ghost was flanked on stage by at least 100 females who jumped up from the audience. It’s a sign of Ghost’s command that a crowd who was barely present when his set started were flocking to participate by the end.
The Port Lands continued to fill in anticipation of the night’s headliner, Schoolboy Q. While Q and his DJ got the crowd bouncing to hits like “Collard Greens”, miles across town, Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down were taking the stage at the Danforth Music Hall.
NXNE added the Port Lands festival as a way to modernize itself this year, but good ol’ fashioned NXNE club shows were still a hot ticket, and there was arguably no ticket hotter than Kamasi Washington’s first show in Canada.
Stepping on stage sporting a huge afro and an outfit straight from the closet of a psychedelic warlock, Kamasi won the crowd over before even playing a note. Tearing into “Changing of the Guard”, Kamasi towered over the stage, with monstrous ovations after every solo. Kamasi’s easy-going charm and sense of humor kept the audience rapt between songs. Throughout the night, Kamasi graciously gave every member of the band a chance to shine — including drum solos from both percussionists, the keytar solo to end all keytar solos, and even inviting his father, Rickey Washington, to sit in most of the night.
However, it was vocalist Patrice Quinn who came closest to stealing Kamasi’s show. Her closing performance of “The Rhythm Changes” was a perfect encapsulation of what makes Kamasi and his band such an exciting live act. Patrice started the song so softly, it was as if she was in melodic conversation with the audience, but the song quickly became a musical snowball, gaining more force with each passing bar. Between soaring solos and a groove so deep it was legally defined as a sinkhole, Patrice continued to ascend in intensity. By the song’s conclusion, it was as if she was atop a musical mountain, her arms outstretched, belting out “I’m here!” to those in awe below. With a performance like that, you can see why Kamasi’s first album was called The Epic.
A ravenous crowd cheered and cheered for an encore, but to no avail. Kamasi and company were content to leave the stage on the ultimate high note.
NXNE took a big jump into the murky waters of Toronto festivals this year, but as Ghostface and Kamasi showed, when you book primo talent, crowds will always find a way to dive in.