Close Enough for Comfort: An Intimate Look at My Intimate Look at Saul Williams

Posted February 2, 2005 in

I wish I had words like Saul Williams' to write this review, but mine will have to do for now. His words are amazing, leaving one with the impression of, if nothing else, complete and unbroken attention. This I learned reading his spoken-word in page and type form in his books The Seventh Ocatave, She and said the shotgun to the head; listening to four studio albums; and watching his Sundance Film Festival-acclaimed movie, SLAM. Little did I know until this night, Nov. 4 2004, that the accessible-for analysis mediums that all these pages and packages are cannot compare to the blast of energy and sound and unmitigated thump, thump, thump of his live show.

Saul Williams (courtesy of

I found out about this concert a day before it happened from a co-worker who called and told me about it. If I would have known that he was coming two weeks earlier, I woulda done everything I could to put him on the cover of SLUG Magazine. As it is, local promoters did a fine job of shitting the bed so that on show night, Club Sound accommodated only 30 or 40 people intent on witnessing some truth.

As Saul said when he took the stage, it was just another Thursday night in Salt Lake City. The show started about an hour after I got there, giving me plenty of time to sink a couple large plastic glasses of beer into my liver and fumble through a couple of embarrassing games of pool. Thavius Beck kicked off the live show as the house sound faded, introducing himself with a calm, "I’m going to stand up here and play some weird music for awhile"—which he did. He rocked through a 45-minute set, twisting out hip-hop beats through the knobs of a 4-track, which I’m sure under the normal circumstances presented to him in other cities with better promoters would have served to hype the audience into a mood of adrenaline groove. Here, though, kids mostly just sat around at tables talking and occasionally nodding their heads to the music serving to quell their impatience.

During Beck’s last song, Saul and two others, Chris Alvares and Heidi Gad, took the stage to as voracious of applause as the small crowd could muster as they came off their seats to swarm the floor closest to the stage. Saul took the mic, Alvares slid in behind a drumkit, Beck strapped on a bass guitar, Gad opened a case and tucked the butt of an electric violin underneath her chin, and the group started into the set. This was the first time I had seen Saul with a live band, and although he has never had a problem with insufficient presence or voice alone on stage or only backed by a mixer, the layers of sound the band added balanced and did not detract from Saul’s huge voice, presenting a power that made me wonder why he never had a band before. No lyrical message was lost in the melodies and the thicker instrumental beats seemed to actually thump it into your chest even more.

Saul’s entire set consisted of songs from his new self-titled album that Fader Label had the pleasure to release this year. Soon-to-be favorites "Black Stacey" and "Control Freak" gave instantaneous choreography to the crowd, dictating their centers of balance to shift smoothly, only offset by convulsive limbs that created several different centers on the floor for all the boys and girls to revolve around and switch. He basically got the place hopping. The dancing, like the music, was a combination of hip-hop and indie-rock, all fueled by brilliant lyrics. Saul even grabbed a guitar and played in Johnny-Ramone-downstroke-only for a couple of songs. I was skeptical when he first put it on, thinking it was somewhat of a gimmick but, as expected, the overall effect obliterated any apprehensions of anything but soulful energy and stylish sounds.

“This is a very unique moment in American history,” Saul said, after becoming assured that the last notes of “African Student Movement” were safely settled into our ears. By the way, he chuckled when he said it. I think that I was somewhat correct in my original impression that thought he was talking about the long segment in that song where he chants over and over, “Where my niggas at?” to an entirely white audience, but then he plunged into a quite-expected (being the day after Bush accepted Kerry’s concession) political tirade—though calm, and as always, eloquent and ridiculously insightful. He outlined our current situation—locked in a war against our parent’s generation. He stressed the importance of the new America, the new youth ushering in a new idea that stretches beyond nationalism and places human beings in front of Americans. He stressed a Gandhi-esque message of being the change that you wish to see in the world and the fact that the only thing you can change is yourself. At this point I stopped taking notes and only remember thinking that I should drive my car less and stop supporting oil companies as much.

What I feared could be the biggest detriment to the show ended up being one of its biggest attributes—the small crowd. I was afraid that only 30 or 40 people could not adequately reciprocate the energy coming from the speakers and the people controlling them to create concert equilibrium. As it turned out, though, the intimate atmosphere it created allowed the crowd and Saul to communicate on an almost-personal level, enabling the songs to reach each specific person on a level that seemed to mean more than it would have to a globular mass of moshing dancers and turned the between-song schpiels into discussions. When he finished his set, instead of having to cheer him back up onstage, the audience simply cornered him as he walked down the stairs to the floor and urged him to realize that the night was not yet over. He finished with a musically backed excerpt from his most recent book of poetry, said the shotgun to the head, which began, “The greatest Americans have not been born yet/They are waiting for the past to die.”

“Man,” Saul said, commenting on the intimacy of the show, “I’m going to tell promoters to stop doing their jobs so often.” Indeed.