Vanderbilt’s annual Commodore Quake is only a small fraction of the university’s homecoming celebration. A celebration that, to someone who has never gone to a school with a football team, seems incomprehensible and ostentatious. But, even if it is celebrating something that some of us will never understand fully, Commodore Quake reaches out to the confused by offering them a sellout concert with hip-hop superstar headliner Kanye West. Now that’s something everyone can enjoy.
But, before all of that, two strange bedfellows opened the concert. Apparently part of an entirely separate tour sponsored by Crocs, light-fare college rockers Brett Dennen and group Guster played on the same bill as one of the biggest names in contemporary mainstream hip-hop. Even Guster singer Ryan Miller commented on how weird it was that his odd little alternative rock band was opening for Kanye West. Even before either played, I couldn’t help but wonder how the crowd, clearly heavy with Kanye fans, was going to react to these bands.
Brett Dennen wasn’t met with the derision that I expected, but he did face a wall of indifference and for good reason. Dennen was standard Dave Matthews roots singer-songwriter fare. He sang folksy songs that were about as inoffensive as they were vague, with trite lyrics about desert sunrises and laying down tracks in the dust. His songs are like horoscopes, they’re so vague that if the listeners didn’t know better, they’d think he was singing about their lives. Dennen only played five songs, but they were about as cliché as could be. It takes more than folksy sayings to capture hearts, maybe Bruce Sprinsteen and Craig Finn from The Hold Steady should teach a class on how to connect with people without being stale and derivative.
Guster, on the other hand, put on a surprisingly electrifying performance. “Electrifying” isn’t typically a word applied to bands that have a guy playing the bongos on all of the songs. During “Airport Song,” the bongo playing rattled the gymnasium and there was a definite feeling that they were trying to step up their performance to compete with the stardom of West. Unlike Brett Dennen, the band played a set of songs where none of them sounded quite the same and displayed a kind of musical diversity not often seen in mainstream music. A band that has the courage to cover a Brazilian samba called “Aquarela do Brasil” is one that is worth seeing on a headlining tour.
However, as soon as Kanye West hit the stage, we had forgotten all about the opening bands. This was mainly because the crowd had aged several years between sets. A full hour passed between the end of Guster and the beginning of Kanye, easily the longest I’ve waited for an artist to appear on stage. West’s delay even managed to surpass Morrissey’s last performance at the Ryman, who was slow to come out because his crew was erecting a 15-foot monument spelling out his name in lights.
The delay also left an already excited crowd visibly agitated, which caused the roaming police officers to step up their offensive and threaten to kick people out if they were anywhere near the black strip of rubber against the stage barricade. Security at a Kanye West concert is like an exercise in martial law.
Eventually, the lights dimmed and West launched into his early hit “Through the Wire” before knocking out new tunes like “Champion” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” West admitted to the crowd that he hadn’t performed many of the new songs for a live audience, which became entirely apparent when he had to stop “Flashing Lights” twice because he forgot the piano chords. West had to retrieve the band member who usually plays keyboards on all of the songs to show him what to play, but even then he had trouble following along. This comes just weeks after he flubbed a verse in “Everything I Am” on Saturday Night Live and tried to cover it up with a freestyle.
Despite the mistakes made during the one song, Kanye West was at the top of his already lofty game. He’s undeniably an incredible, charismatic performer when he’s actually performing. When he starts talking, on the other hand, there’s no telling what will happen. In the middle of “Drunk and Hot Girls,” West told the backing band to keep playing while he talked to the audience. What followed was a 15-minute rambling “soliloquy” about going to clubs as a teenager and getting a fake phone number from the girl he was attracted to. He told the crowd that he needed to explain why he “spazzes out” occasionally, directly referring to a highly publicized incident at the MTV Video Music Awards. According to West, he doesn’t “spaz out” because he cares about awards shows, but rather because he doesn’t care about awards shows. I got the feeling that the band was as lost as we were, because he would occasionally tell his backing band to keep playing when it sounded like they were trying to wind it down.
After West’s diatribe petered out and he finally finished the song, the rest of the show went on without incident. In his trademark energetic way, he tore through a total of 16 songs from all three records before taking a short break. He came out for a five-song encore which ended on an extended performance of “Stronger.” What makes a Kanye West performance stand out from a typical mainstream rapper isn’t just his on-stage charisma, but also the string section which gives his songs an added degree of class. I’m not sure if he’ll be playing the Schermerhorn Symphony any time soon, but the live orchestra does for West what a live band does for The Roots: It allows for more spontaneity than what is seen on a typical DJ and Rapper hip-hop show.