California dreamin: Lyrics Born's sunny vibe

Riddle me this: How does musical group A play to a full house while, a few weeks later, musical group B from the same label– boasting a newer, more successful record– can't pull even a third of the people into the same venue?

This ran through my mind as I watched random souls wander around a big, empty Satellite Ballroom. Opening act Pigeon John was performing to a modest audience that seemed to enjoy his quirky tongue-in-cheek hip-hop humor. He was quite the cornball, somewhat like a one-man variety show, rapping, singing, playing the guitar, and acting out mini-monologues.

Pigeon John warmed the crowd up well. By the time he left the stage, a decent number of folks had begun to arrive. People seemed anxious to see exactly what kind of show Lyrics Born would put on. Many had seen label-mate Blackalicious a few weeks earlier, and that's a tough act to follow.

Things began with a bang when Lyrics Born's band took the stage. The ensemble came as a shock to me, mainly because Lyric's albums are steeped in traditional hip-hop styling: samples and heavy drums. But instead of opting for a DJ and maybe one or two live instruments to back up the heavy electronic beats, his band was a full four-piece outfit of bass, keys, drums and guitar. From the opening notes, it was evident that they came to prove that a band can make heads nod just as effectively as– if not better than– a drum machine.

Lyrics Born burst on the stage after a short instrumental introduction and laid into an impressive fit of verbal gymnastics. His style alone is pretty unorthodox: rapping bordering on singing. To his credit, he sounded just like his albums when he grabbed the mic. Also on microphone duty was a back-up singer whose voice didn't match her body. When I closed my eyes, I saw a heavy-set black woman in a church choir, but when I looked, a petite Asian woman was on stage. This woman could blow something fierce. She nearly stole the show.

Speaking of the show, the Lyrics Born ensemble put on a high-energy performance that was all feel-good with a positive sunny west-coast vibe (they hail from the Bay area). But that happy-go-lucky vibe actually struck an odd note for me. At first it was great vibing out, but after a while, the set seemed a little too sugarcoated.

I hear that life is much more carefree in Cali, where the sun shines all the time, but I like a little pain, a little struggle, in my music. Love and rap skills are great topics, but after 20 songs, they become a bit redundant.

I found myself zoning out to the band, who remixed Lyrics Born's songs on the fly by replacing the known riffs with various melodies from popular rap songs. It's a technique used by The Roots (hip-hop's quintessential live band). In a way, it was like cheating. Luckily, they did a good job.

After the show, Lyrics Born and the band stood behind the merch table signing autographs and pushing their paraphernalia. I like it when a national artist is down to earth enough to connect with fans on a personal level. The Blackalicious crew didn't do that. I guess Lyrics Born is willing to trade ticket sales for a chance to vibe with his fans. For that, I really couldn't be mad.