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Words and Photos: Armand Hammer / HXXS / Midwestern at The Bottleneck

Elucid of Armand Hammer at The Bottleneck. Photo by Aaron Rhodes.
Date: September 14, 2021

The Bottleneck - Lawrence, KS


Somewhere around 100 hip-hop fans made their way to The Bottleneck this past Tuesday. It was my first trip to the venue since COVID hit and also my first visit since some renovations were made. The once low-hanging ceiling was stripped away to reveal the large metal beams supporting the structure, as well as a couple skylights. The wood paneling that once covered the walls at the rear of the stage had also been stripped away, exposing instead a dark stone wall. The lighting and sound systems also received noticeable upgrades. It's a historic venue for the town and as fun as it was to think about Guided By Voices and Chief Keef playing a venue that likely looked exactly the same on each of their visits, I figure it was time to bring the place into the 21st century. All of that extra space where the ceiling once hung also gives the room a grander feel and I would guess is helpful in terms of ventilation.

Acclaimed New York duo Armand Hammer -- Billy Woods and Elucid -- took the stage at 9:10 P.M. Not long into their set, one of the two remarked between songs: "Early show. Not complaining though. Get everyone out of here nice and early, get home safe. I can go watch SportsCenter." They weren't being facetious though, soon after noting they had just made an eight hour drive and thanked the sound man for rolling with the punches after they were forced to forgo their soundcheck. Perhaps a tad road-weary, Billy and Elucid soldiered on, doling out cunning raps from their albums as Armand Hammer and their solo catalogs for a solid hour -- the music they make isn't for "raging" anyway, rather for smoking blunts as you watch late night television.

"Impressive crowd," was another early set remark that could've been misread, but after roughly 35 years in the rap game between the two, it's safe to say they entered the Midwest leg of their tour with appropriately low expectations, despite selling out some cities on the coasts. Billy, Elucid, and their impressive crowd seemed content vibing in unison as the duo kicked bars like a well-oiled machine. They even called a couple audibles -- Billy was surprised by one song Elucid cued up on the laptop, but didn't miss a beat. Later, a fan shouted out a request that Billy was unsure he could fulfill due a sore throat, but he ended up conquering that one as well.

Though most of the set consisted of head-nodding and grateful applause from the crowd (multiple "thank you!" shouts), there were several highlights including Billy's collabs with Kenny Segal "Spongebob," "Spider Hole," and "Houthi" (likely the biggest rap-alongs of the night), "Falling Out The Sky" and "Stonefruit" (from their recent Alchemist collab album), and "Root Farm" (a bare bones beat that samples Frank Ocean's "Skyline To" from the duo's 2018 Paraffin -- "lowkey oppressors call me brother," raps Elucid).

I want to start my writing about HXXS' opening set by acknowledging how invigorating it can be to watch or take part in an organic mosh pit. I'm not talking about about a group of vegans and farm-to-table foodies bumping into each other, but rather a pit that doesn't have to be asked or shoved by a performer to get moving. Much of the duo's set consisted of calculated assaults of electronic drums, jagged guitar riffs, and screamed vocals, and impressive as they are in composition and execution, they don't lend themselves to slam dancing in a traditional way. Near the end of the set, however, one song, full of stops and starts, slowly built and built before exploding into a dance beat, the kinetic force of which sent a dozen or so front row attendees joyfully careening into one another. Guitarist/vocalist Gavin Neves' eyes lit up as he looked away from his array of pedals and knew exactly what was about to happen half a moment before it did. My only gripe about the set was that drum programmer/vocalist Jeannie Colleene's microphone was set up in a way that muffled her voice and made it much squeakier than on the record or the last time I saw HXXS live, thus narrowing the range of emotion she could convey.

I wasn't sure what to expect when Midwestern took the stage at the beginning of their set. I had only heard one song from their Bandcamp (a rather sparse experimental track) and I'd missed the small handful of other shows they've played so far (they've been very present on social media and at shows they aren't playing, which is always heartening). What unfolded was roughly 20 minutes of noise rap mixed with an eclectic set of beats and grooves courtesy of DJ and vocalist Charmaine Ejelonu and a live drummer. Though it could be argued that the drummer underplayed over the course of the set, perhaps it was best that they leave the freaking out to Ejelonu and the group's other vocalist (whom I have met briefly a couple times before immediately forgetting their name). And freak out is exactly what they did -- Ejelonu's partner in crime was shirtless from beginning to end and the pair left the stage to move about the venue floor for at least a couple songs. Rather than packing each song with dense raps like a Death Grips (or locally, a Young Mvchetes), the pair often focused in on a line or two that they ended up chanting (and sometimes screaming) as they grooved along to the instrumentals. Though the performance as a whole was rather unpolished, the group's unbridled energy and complete fearlessness is something I hope to witness again in the very near future.

[Shuttlecock was a media partner on this show.]


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