Saul Williams

Concert Review: Saul Williams at Lincoln Hall (Chicago)

“I’m definitely not hip enough to be here.”

Almost a week after seeing legendary Saul Williams perform in Chicago, I’m still confused as to what exactly I attended. He’s one of the most prominent and influential voices in hip hop and independent music, often being dubbed as a prophetic poet and that night I began to understand why.

I hadn’t dabbled much in Saul Williams’ music and art form before going to his show (which I know many of you are face-palming about from behind your screens), and friends of mine told me I was in for an “interesting experience.”

What could that even mean? I’ve gone to my share of heavily experimental shows, DIY shit, a dude with just a sock on penis while playing the drums, people speaking legitimate gibberish on stage with three dissonant twangs from a guitar, so how could this one show blow those out of the water? I was informed that the crowd would most likely be a mix of the most hip, avant-garde members of the black community and ultra-hipster white people with in attendance. Huh, okay, that still doesn’t help guys. They, of course, were spot-on, and I really didn’t feel hip enough to be there.

Saul Williams is known for putting on heavily experimental shows where he covers his face in paint, places feathers in his hair, and is one of those artists you have to focus one hundred percent to fully appreciate his performances. I was eager to see what he would bring to the table and tried searching concert reviews from this tour to get a sense of it. To my surprise, however, no one reviewed any of his shows since 2012.

What? I was truly going in blind, something which makes me uneasy.

I was wary from the get-go since the opener was so overwhelmingly disappointing that I nearly left before Saul Williams went on. I watched the guy perform from a monitor in the front bar of Lincoln Hall because I couldn’t stand being inside for his set. The other people standing out there with me? Other press folk drinking beer and being antsy waiting for the set to end. He, thankfully, abruptly ended it very soon after going on (I’d say about 25 minutes?) after numerous mishaps with sound cutting out.

While I debated heavily on Twitter whether or not I should leave (with a lengthy blow-by-blow about a creepy white van outside the venue), Saul Williams finally came on. I moved inside to finally join in the experience and his set from the very beginning was deeply moving and powerful, with waves of propaganda film and aggressively disconcerting beats reverberating throughout the room. Everyone was enraptured by his presence making it a very spiritual experience.

He’d sing a song (don’t ask me names, please) and then would suddenly stop, tell his DJ to cut the music, and without the aid of the mic, would walk in front and spit poetry on the fly. You could hear a pin drop, that was how silent us audience members were. Even Lincoln Hall’s staff, from the sound engineers to bartenders would stop what they were doing to listen to his poetry, and when he finished the entire venue would burst into raucous applause.

The most memorable moment was him pulling out a scroll and rapidly reading poetry on the state of social media and our disconnect from reality. I saw people tear up and become emotional and I finally got it. I’m not normally a fan of spoken word but he captivated me like he has for thousands upon thousands of fans over the last twenty years.

Williams at one point stopped the music again to thank us for being open-minded and welcoming of him. He informed us he was experimenting with a new type of show, one that he had only previously done the night before and was just having fun with it. I attended a rare, never-before-seen set of Saul Williams’ art and I realized I was one of the lucky few who were able to be a part of that experience.

Even without knowing his music and poetry before that night, though, I was in awe of how inspiring and powerful his presence was in Lincoln Hall. While it was a serious set, he would stop and laugh with the audience, poke fun at his DJ for messing up certain sections of music, and kept us engaged the entire time. He didn’t let his art do all the talking, nor did he completely pull out of his message just to be a part of the crowd. Saul Williams did Saul Williams and I know I’ll remember his show for years to come, even if I still don’t totally get it.

He’s on tour now in support of his upcoming album MartyrLoserKing out this July. Check him out in your city if possible.