Live Review, 1/21/12: The Theophilus London Variety Show Comes to Mezzanine

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Nathan Mattise
Theophilus London at Mezzanine on Friday.

Theophilus London
K. Flay
Nick Waterhouse (w/ The Tarots)
Jan. 21, 2012
Mezzanine

Better than: Some modern-day Lawrence Welk incarnation.

Being an MC is hard. You can be criticized for one of the most abstract concepts in music -- your "flow" -- if it strikes people as odd or different. Your lyrical content gets scrutinized more closely than your band-backed contemporaries, too.

It only gets worse when performing live. Most venues push bass and drum audio levels to the forefront. Even the best lead singers and rappers face this, but an unknown MC can't rely on the audience's collective knowledge the way bigger names can. Fans shout Kanye's lyrics back at him no matter what they can or can't hear, but that's not what someone like Big Sean enjoys every night.

Theophilus London qualifies as a relatively unknown MC (with all of his major releases happening in the last calendar year). So when he entered the stage -- with a hype man in a matching "LVRS" hat and a headphone-clad DJ behind them -- it was easy to imagine the night unfolding. Devoted fans bouncing, rest of the crowd against the wall with drinks in hand. Nothing special.

But as London went through his set at Mezzanine, his performance indicated that the traditional MC is just one role he sees himself in.

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Believe all the genre-bending hype he's earned: Seeing Theophilus London live feels like a modern-day variety show, as his wide range of musical offerings created a set with something for nearly everyone. He kept fans up late (starting his set at 12:45 a.m.) but delivered more than an hour of funk, rap, electronica, 80s-inspired tracks and odd pop-culture samplings from his small discography and upcoming release.

No matter what approach London took, the crowd happily embraced it. He showcased his ability to spit a verse on "Last Name London," his playful take on the rap staple of self-identification (Fabulous spells, London uses standard indexing). A live bassist and guitarist came in and turned up for London's single, "Why Even Try," a throwback mix of R&B and funk you might've heard from Grandmaster Flash. He debuted new songs that sampled everything from "Big Spender" to Pinky and The Brain (look for the one on his new release with "try to take over the world" featured prominently). And it was hard to experience "I Stand Alone" without thoughts of The Police (or more playfully, Genesis or Toto) when the synth-soaring chorus kicked in.

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London's onstage energy was infectious, so even if an individual track doesn't resonate it was hard not to get swept up in the party happening around you. He covered every inch of the stage in any given song, gliding from end to end while tossing his limbs everywhere. All this movement didn't even phase him. London kept it consistent whether rapping or singing, despite letting out a James Brown-like quantity of sweat onstage.

During his set, London made sure to note this night was part of the larger tour he's curating: the Tour De Roses. Opening acts Nick Waterhouse and K. Flay only added to the variety he offered at Mezzanine.

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Nick Waterhouse

Waterhouse started off the night but was the stronger opener. He's a Buddy Holly dead-ringer delivering a set full of the traditional soul-band stylings you'd expect from Sharon Jones or Charles Bradley. Every solo section showcased the talent on stage at each position -- drums, sax, keys, and Waterhouse himself on guitar. This style of music seems universally accepted (see all your early afternoon festival sets) and the Mezzanine crowd got into it in no time. Waterhouse, who has S.F. roots, tipped his hat to the audience and the city by bringing in a local -- Ty Segall -- to sit in on drums for a Gene Krupa-styled track toward the end of his set.

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K. Flay

K. Flay won her share of fans on the evening as well. She's a local rapper/producer and performs with a drummer, and a synth, tom, and laptop for herself. Her set suffered from some of the challenges described at the top. But K. Flay ended on a high, showcasing her songwriting abilities by individually constructing each part of a track toward the finale of her set.

Ultimately the night belonged to the ringleader of Tour de Roses. London planned the sonic party he wanted to have, and everyone off stage appreciated the invite.

Critic's Notebook

Bring your tight denim: I've seen my share of hip crowds, but none quite like the audience for Theophilus London. People dressed like flappers, elderly couples that could pass for contemporaries of Serge Gainsbourg or Francoise Hardy. PBR Tallboys outnumbered DSLRs, and the densest part of the venue was the smoking area. Felt like George Constanza entering the model world. The night's best overheard one-liner: "I know more about you from Instagram than I do from anything."

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