MIA plays Portland and I am strangely flat

Anjali and I went and saw MIA at the Roseland Theater this Thursday, November 15th. This was the second time we had seen her perform. The first time was two years earlier, when she was on tour with Gwen Stefani. We didn’t see her appearance at the Gwen Stefani show, but caught her at the after party at Aura. That was November 23rd, 2005. The after-party was only advertised on 95.5 FM. That station even had “Galang” on their playlist in preparation for that show. Anjali and I had been hanging out with my parents; it was the day before Thanksgiving. Afterwards we drove by Aura to see what was going on. We were ambivalent about going to the after party because we weren’t sure if MIA was going to actually perform there or not. We drove by the club and it looked completely dead. We parked a few blocks away and sat in the car debating about whether or not to go in. It could have gone either way, but Anjali finally rallied us and we went. Good man Bob Seashore at the door let us right in. MIA was a few songs into a five song set for about 40 or 50 people dancing in the center of a club that looked very empty. MIA was energetic and enthusiastic. The crowd loved her, and Anjali was even able to meet Maya briefly as her management dragged her out of the club. We knew she had a lot more fans than that in Portland, and we figured the slight turnout was due to the fact that the show was being exclusively advertised on 95.5, and that there must not have been that much of a crossover at that point between 95.5 listeners, and MIA fans. Or maybe it was just that a lot of her fans were under-21 and couldn’t get in to Aura, because the young’ns showed up in droves for the MIA show this Thursday.

Anjali started telling me about MIA in 2003 when “Galang” first dropped in England, and we have gobbled up her 12″s, mixtapes, leaked tracks, remixs, albums, etc. ever since. While I don’t love everything she does, her best stuff is among my favorite stuff out. Because we had been ordering her initial 12″s from England as they came out, when Arular dropped I felt like I was already super-familiar with all the best stuff from that album, and I didn’t play it that much once it came out. Likewise Anjali and I gobbled up all the pre-release tracks from Kala as they appeared, and by the time her 2nd album dropped, it felt like yesterday’s news. Other than the already-leaked tracks, only “Paper Planes ” seemed to add to her ouvre in a significant way. That makes two albums that I pined and pined for only to be really underwhelmed once they actually came out. I had Kala’s release date memorized for months, and when it finally dropped I was like, “That’s it?” Half-assed lyrical swipes, bad singing, and priorly-leaked tracks. Other than thinking that the chorus of “Sunshowers” was a tuneless butchering of the original “Sunshower” by Dr Buzzards Original Savannah Band, I really liked all of MIA’s own songs, and guest verses, prior to the release of Kala. I thought that her use of her voice and lyrics were always going to be gold on a song. Kala made me realize just how limited her abilities are, and just how important it is for her to work within her abilities to achieve her best. I find the lyrical borrowings on the album to be poorly performed and distracting. I think her singing is awful, and her cringe-worthy warbling of the bridge of “Jimmy” a tragic mangling of the gorgeous melody composed by Bappi Lahiri and originally sung by Parviti Khan. Leading up to Kala I thought that anything MIA did was going to be brilliant, and afterwards I felt like she is brilliant within a certain range, but that she must develop a better understanding of her limits. XR2 is still my favorite; I love Diplo’s chopped horns. I do like the original mp3 better than the album version, however.

Anjali and I arrived at the Roseland some time after 9pm. The show was sold-out, filled to the brim with young white Portlanders. I wondered to what extent Portland Desis might be hip to MIA, but if they are, they certainly weren’t at the show. MIA’s opener, The Cool Kids, had already performed. The few people I talked to weren’t feeling them at all, but those people weren’t that into hip-hop anyway, so I didn’t feel like I got all that informed of a critical perspective, just personal reactions. Anjali had wanted to get on the bill, and it would have been great if that had happened, because the sold-out crowd was treated to a long wait of muddy background music between the Cool Kids and MIA. The beginning of MIA’s performance was announced by a very looong video screen (longest I’ve ever seen) that took up the entire back of the stage, coming to life with a long monologue by an announcer speaking very emphatically in Japanese, with subtitles in English on the screen. It has been years since I studied Japanese, so I had no idea what he was saying, and since I wasn’t wearing my glasses, I couldn’t make out the subtitles either. I was surrounded by loud cheering from the crowd throughout the monologue; they were obviously pleased by some of the subtitles. Without understanding the Japanese, or being able to read the subtitles, I still had a feeling that the subtitles didn’t necessarily have anything to do with what was actually being said in Japanese by the announcer. Just a feeling.

The visuals were central to the power of the show, and used a lot of the high-contrast, pop art, flash, flash, flash style for which MIA is known. DJ Low Budget came out first and he was a very solid live DJ throughout the night, scratching, blending, you name it. The dominant sound of the evening was gushots. Gunshots, gunshots, gunshots. Over and over and over. As ubiquitious a sonic element as they are in many genres, I have never seen a performance so centered around the sound of gunfire. Loud firings over and over and over throughout the entire set. Like punctuation. As you read this review imagine you can hear the constant reports of gunfire.

MIA and her dancer/backup singer Cherry came out, dancing in front of the crowd. The energy was crazy, second only to Manu Chao’s crowd at the Roseland this year, in terms of adulation and intensity. Everyone was bouncing up and down to “Bamboo Banga” the beat of which introduced the MIA performance. I have never taken notes at a show before, but since there are so many things that I am aware of at the time when I am watching a performance, that I quickly forget later, it made me think that since I tend to be writing a fair amount of these show reviews, that I should take notes in the future. Luckily I found a blog post by Ernest Jasmine of Tacoma’s News Tribune, who managed to snake a set list from the show. I had taken sketchy set list notes after the show, and while I managed to note most of the songs played, and the new samples and loops that were added to the songs for the performance, I didn’t have the best memory of the exact order of all the tracks, which viewing the set list promptly remedied.

The crowd was hyped, and thrilled to the muddy, LOUD pounding of the backing tracks. I had really been looking forward to hearing XR2, and when she went into it three songs in I was disappointed at the lack of clarity of the central horn melody. The sound was mostly mud, with clear pants-rippling bass only appearing occasionally. The vocals were only somewhat audible, although they did come through clearly on the “Na na na na na na na” part of “Boyz” towards the end of her set. It wasn’t that there was no low-end, there was tons of low-end, it was just the consistency of thick mud. Anjali felt that people’s excitement had more to do with knowing the songs, and how they are supposed to sound, than the actual sonic presentation that evening. She noticed MIA pulling the mic away from her mouth several times while her voice continued singing, which made me wonder how much of her vocals were live, and how much were pre-recorded backing tracks. Cherry was very noticeably helping out on vocals at points, singing the chorus to “Sunshowers” in a very different style than the recorded version, although it wasn’t necessarily an improvement. At one point MIA came up to the front of the stage, turned sideways so the crowd could see her profile and did a sort of “sexy” dance I would expect from Fergie, or Beyonce, or whoever. With her oversized T-shirt her presence was not of the typical female pop star objectify-me variety, except for this brief moment, where I realized that she is very, very skinny. Not the stuff of which booty shaking is made. At another point the visuals were of several different clips of girls booty shaking. The imagery would have been completely typical if they were part of a mainstream male hip-hop video, but since it was MIA, I wondered what she was getting at. I imagined that she was reclaiming the beauty of women’s bodies and their dancing, or something along those lines, but it was very stereotypical imagery.

Here is the set list. I’ll interject occasional notes.

“Bamboo Banga” (Crowd loved it.)

“World Town”

“XR2” (I was really looking forward to this, but live it left me flat. Just OK. Everyone else was dancing, including MIA and Cherry.)

“Pull Up the People” (Before starting this song she said something along the lines of “Now its time to talk politics” or something like that. She never did talk politics, as a matter of fact.)

“Sunshowers”/”PSK” (At the time I thought, “Hey, that’s the beat of Schooly D’s 1985 classic P.S.K. playing over “Sunshowers.” A Philly tribute from Philly DJ Low Budget.)

“20 Dollar”/”Blue Monday” (When the “Blue Monday” instrumental came in people went crazy. Not my favorite New Order song, but it sounded really good, and the crowd was stoked.)

“Jimmy” (MIA said something like “ready for the ’80s” and then New Order became Bappi Lahiri. The crowd all sang “Aaja” loudly in response to MIA’s cooing “Jimmy.” Anjali marveled, “They’re singing in Hindi!”)

“10 Dollar” (This song was introduced with the Eurhythmics “Sweet Dreams” sample.  Was it the Funk Carioca version?  Can’t remember.)
“Bucky Done Gun” (People got all hyped for this one. “Portland” replaced “London” in the lyrics. MIA climbed up onto the speakers, and then from the top of the speakers stepped over to the balcony. I have never seen this in all the shows I have been to at the Roseland. She sang from the balcony for a while, before making her way back stage from the second floor.)

“Bird Flu” (For this one she dragged a TON of people from the audience to come up and dance.)

“Paper Planes” (“Get your lighters up. Get your phones up. I know you’ve got one.” Many people obliged.)


intro/”Lip Gloss” (“Lipgloss” has been one of Anjali’s pop favorites recently, so we both turned to each other when the beat came on. MIA was dancing and singing, “Whatchoo know bout me, whatchoo, whatchoo know bout me.”)


##### Time for the encore .

“Amazon ”

“Hussel” (Afrika Boy’s rap was played over the system. He was not a part of the show, unlike over in England.)

“URAQT” (I recognized that a new funk loop was added to this song, but I couldn’t place it. Ernest Jasmin wrote that it was the theme from Sanford and Son.)

Despite what everyone else was doing throughout the show, I hardly danced at all. I barely moved at a few points, and that was it. I had really been looking forward to the show, but I was oddly detached and flat for the actual performance. In many ways I am a huge “fan” of MIA, but that doesn’t mean I am uncritical. I have seen many shows that were just people rapping to backing tracks – shows that blew me away – but MIA used the same format and didn’t elicit much of a response from me. I would go and see her again, but I wouldn’t expect to dance and jump around as much as the rest of the crowd. I think she is a really amazing artist, that has completely changed the game, but I think I wanted some live South Indian drummers on stage to take the show to the next level. Seeing MIA and Cherry prance around while Low Budget played backing tracks just wasn’t all that entertaining for me. I seemed to be in the clear minority on that one.


PS I’m still waiting for an official 12″ of XR2 with the original leaked mixes, and especially Tigerstyle’s awesome refix.

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