In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about shows we’ve seen where the opener eclipsed the headliner.
“I think it’s two guys with dreadlocks.” This was the answer I got when I asked my friend if he knew anything about Astronautalis, the second rapper on a four-act bill headlined by P.O.S. and Dessa of Minneapolis’ Doomtree. As soon as the non-dreadlocked Andy Bothwell—who functions under the stage name Astronautalis—walked onstage alone, my expectations were already smashed, but I still had no idea what I was in for. When he launched into his set, I was greeted with an indie-rap concoction that sounded as if Tom Waits was growling atop dreamy, Modest Mouse-instrumental tracks. As smitten as I was, it was his performance of “Somethin’ For The Kids” from his debut album You And Yer Good Ideas that saw him snatch the show away from the headliners.
Before playing “Somethin’ For The Kids,” Bothwell offered the most memorable pre-song banter I’ve ever heard, as he made the claim that all his previous raps were works of fiction, but, “This next one is entirely true. It’s about eating doughnuts with Tupac Shakur and then getting murdered.” It wasn’t until the second verse that Bothwell touched on that topic, but the song’s opening line—“Me and Fat Joe were riding in the back of an industrial-strength delivery van”—proved peculiar enough to grab everyone’s attention anyway.
When he finally made good on the story he teased, I was rapt. In this supposed reality, the pair meet at a doughnut shop and quickly devour a dozen, with Shakur opining, “Doughnuts are communism,” and “12 is too much / Half a dozen wastes our time.” By the time his flight of fancy with Shakur ended, Bothwell returned to the song’s hook, which served as an introspective counterbalance to the absurd vignettes, “Father was an engine driver / Grandpa fought the war / Hope that I can maybe size up / Leave my mark at all.” During the performance I looked at my friend, the same one who created these false expectations of Astronautalis just moments before the set, and he was equally engrossed. We caught eyes, shared a nod, and then immediately went to Astronautalis’ merch table and bought a copy of every record he had with him.
For the rest of the night, all we talked about was Astronautalis’ set. Both Dessa and P.O.S. put on stellar performances, but we’d been bowled over by Bothwell. Since then I’ve seen Astronautalis in a variety of settings, and while he’s impressed on every occasion, there was a magic to entering the show clueless and leaving an evangelist. It’s a feeling I’ve tried to recreate in others, convincing them to see him live without knowing a lick of his music. Somehow, the gambit always pays off, as one by one they succumb to Astronautalis’ lyrical sugar rush.