Review: Saul Williams' eclectic artistry takes center stage at the Orpheum in Ybor City

Published Feb. 28, 2012

If sweat is a testament to the exorcism of the spoken word, then Saul Williams perspires his inner demons (and equal parts love) in mouthfuls of brilliant display on stage. An artist is an artist, and is one who succumbs to the plague of their inner writhing and channels it with a medium, and Williams' unflappable execution is nothing short of admirable.

The man behind intellectually crafted verse and hip-hop/rock fusions made his first appearance in Tampa at the Orpheum Sunday night. The tour promotes Williams' fourth studio album, Volcanic Sunlight, but the majority of the gig gave play to his back catalog, evoking his signature raw candor.

Charged by a backing band, complete with horns, drums and opener CX Kidtronik, Williams' live additions spun fresh renditions of studio cuts. His modest entrance during CX Kidtronik's mix of A-ha's Take On Me accompanied his opening recitation from Coded Language, where he lists the names of historic figures and musicians. Consider it his honor and recognition of those before him. Sentiments aside, he thrust full throttle into 90 minutes of poignant dialogue, spoken and sung.

He dug up the past with jams like Control Freak, African Student Movement, Surrender and frenzy-inducing Grippo, where he roused the crowd beforehand by asking if it had enough energy. After that, not even the sticky floor could keep them from dancing. Some high-energy peaks: Black Stacey, Girls Have More Fun, Patience, List of Demands. Tenderness slipped in with Triumph and the depth of commitment to spoken word Untimely Meditations. The album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust, Williams' self-described lovechild with Trent Reznor, scored him many new cross-genre fans (which made for a lovely mix of concertgoers) but only came up for air with lone songs DNA and World on Wheels (a bonus track).

One front-row fan caught the attention of Williams by reciting verse with him simultaneously. Impressed, Williams stopped and ushered over the microphone, but the guy froze after a few lines and Williams smiled, sat down on the end of the stage and shook hands with him. Being within arms and ear reach, fans barged an onslaught of requests including someone asking for a hug which Williams replied only if they brought him a beer, "because I really want a beer right now." And that is how Saul Williams came to drink a PBR tallboy at the Orpheum.

His commitment to his craft: enviable. His trust in his fans: remarkable. For the last hurrah, Williams fearlessly immersed himself into the crowd and joined his fans for a bounce-house performance of List of Demands.

He screamed, he sang, he spoke. Sometimes his voice cracked and sometimes the tempos of heavy percussion staggered, but that's the genuineness of unabashed delivery in poetic performance. Before departing, Williams made a generous sweep of handshakes, doling out momentous acknowledging and eye contact to each person.

A worthy mention to the first opener, local hip hop artist BC, whose rhymes aligned more with Williams' motif than second act CX Kidtronik's multi-genre galactic montages. But Williams' experimental edge allows for that sometimes hard-to-swallow eclectic artist. He has an uncontainable artistry that casts itself out onstage in a sweaty catharsis, manifesting his own beat, and you can hear it, if you listen.

— Stephanie Bolling, tbt*