The Coup's new multimedia project Shadowbox was at least partially inspired by bandleader/MC Boots Riley's experience walking into a Theater Artaud performance as a child. The performance was a treatise on AIDS, but Riley was more frightened than enlightened by the giant sets and writhing actors around him. Its influence on Shadowbox primarily manifested itself in the sheer scale of the project — three stages, eight performers, artwork on all sides. It's thus fitting that I walked into the world premiere of Shadowbox at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts feeling overwhelmed — and walked out of it very un-enlightened.
The audience was given a full 20 minutes before the performance to examine Jon-Paul Bail's artwork. Drawn on massive posterboards that towered almost to the ceiling, Bail's drawings depicted San Francisco in the midst of a class war. Skyscrapers were adorned with words like "GREED" and "SEX" alongside the names of big tech companies and startups (Google, Twitter, Uber). A Google bus was shown on fire, coasting between houses half-converted into cafes and foodie restaurants. Perhaps most poignant were the words "WE IN HERE" written on the top window of a house about to turn into an American Apparel.
It was an engrossing artwork, frequently affecting and certainly overwhelming. I still hadn't fully digested it by the time the Coup appeared, pounding away at the riff to their recent cut "Gods of Science." On a musical level, they couldn't have opened their set with a better song; that song's pounding, bludgeoning riff is every bit as angry and apocalyptic as Bail's artwork. But as soon as Riley took the microphone, the show's weak link made itself fully clear — his lyrics were barely understandable.
I suspect this mainly had to do with the mixing. When I saw the Coup perform at Outside Lands in 2008, I could understand most of the lyrics, and the band sounded crisp and clear. At Shadowbox, Riley struggled to fight back the wall of sound the band around him was creating. The sound guy also had trouble with the Coup's various collaborators. The band's cross-stage collaborations with Extra Action Marching Band and neo-classical quartet Classical Revolution were marred by at least one of the acts always sounding louder than the other. At one point, Riley had to literally implore the sound guy to turn up Snow Angel leader Gabby La La's sitar. He didn't seem to comply.
Whatever the cause, the incomprehensibility of Riley's lyrics sent the exhibit into freefall. The audience had already seen Bail's artwork, and without Riley's lyrics grounding the performance, the political aspect of the show began to drift away. It's a shame, because the anti-greed treatise of "Gods of Science" should have resonated with anyone still reeling from Bail's work.
The songs the Coup performed at Shadowbox must have been selected for a reason, and perhaps they continued in a narrative arc that tied the show's disparate polemics together. But without the help of Riley's lyrics, the performance started to seem more like a live-band showcase assisted by a progression of seemingly unrelated political images — Palestinian flags here, drones there, Guantanamo Bay detainees dancing around over in that corner. By the second appearance of the Extra Action Marching Band, the politics had all but disappeared from the performance, and Shadowbox seemed like little more than a particularly raucous hip-hop show.
Anyone who knows the Coup's songs shouldn't have had this problem, leading me to suspect that Shadowbox is primarily geared towards hardcore Coup fans. But if this is the case, Riley is essentially preaching his political message to the choir — and he (or his sound guy) ought to rethink their approach if they want to enlighten anyone else.