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Chicagoist Does Rock The Bells

By Veronica Murtagh in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 1, 2009 6:20PM

photo via Damian Marley's myspace
Charles Hamilton's cancellation at the upcoming Pitchfork Festival has fans disgruntled and calling foul on the now almost nonexistent hip-hop offerings. Even Lollapalooza, a festival that just last year toted the likes of Lupe and Kanye feels sparse on the hip-hop booking this summer. Last weekend, for the fourth consecutive year, Rock The Bells took over First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park. For those willing to make the trek, a day full of both up-and-coming talent and The Greats delivered.

The venue was divided into the main amphitheatre area and a second smaller outdoor stage. We arrived just in time to catch the second half of Buckshot and KRS-One ramping fans into a frenzy on the second stage. A great flow and a knack for charming the crowd made this one of the standout performances of the festival. We've been to a lot of shows in our day, and never have we seen fans go so crazy for promotional posters being tossed offstage.

Compared to the vast emptiness of the amphitheatre early in the day, the second stage had the perfect, essence of summer vibe. The sun shone hot as eager fans gathered in close for the act we personally had been waiting years to see live. Greeting the crowd with a booming, "What's up motherfuckers?" M.O.P. set the audience on fire. Fists slammed the air, feet danced and a wide-eyed look of holy shit was commonplace across the faces watching the stage, awaiting whatever came next. M.O.P. live was an aural riot and a visual onslaught that lived up to our every expectation. As they closed their set with Ante Up, we half expected the riotous fans (ourselves included) to take off en masse and loot the snack kiosks.

Anticipating Talib's upcoming set we circumvented the two staging areas, checking out K'naan and Slum Village. K'naan proved himself a fantastic storyteller, deserving of the hype surrounding his 2009 debut release, Troubadour. Slum Village put on an entertaining set, but ultimately, this group will never be the same without Dilla and it was obvious in the apathetic reactions of the crowd.

People finally began descending into the amphitheatre and pit as Talib Kweli took the main stage. The sound was not to his liking and it was clear he was unhappy throughout his set. Screaming at the sound guy repeatedly, Talib felt like a small man on a very big stage. Eventually he gave up and rescinded to performing as best he could, but it was too late and the crowd had soured at his lackluster performance and the apparent chip on his shoulder.

Big Boi followed Talib in stark contrast, hitting the stage with all the energy Talib lacked. In our biggest surprise of the day, Big Boi won our hearts with energy, enthusiasm and sheer fun factor. While we wish there had been a little more solo material in the mix, we can't complain about much else. Big Boi was the perfect act needed to segue day to night and reset the sun-exhausted crowd.

The Roots followed Big Boi, setting up a full live band's worth of gear including a marching sousaphone. It was obvious that this was going to be an ambitious set. Even on the cavernous stage, The Roots performed intimately, leading the crowd through a jazz-influenced, mature and sophisticated performance. In a show that felt more Austin City Limits than outdoor music festival, The Roots again solidified themselves as next level talents, capable of crafting memorable rhymes and even more memorable live performances.

We had been looking forward to the stage antics of Busta Rhymes and rumors had begun to circulate that he was not in attendance and would not perform. Rumors proved to be just that as Busta took the stage for the wildest, most energetic 30 minutes of the day. It began to rain around us, but not a single body in the crowd noticed anything other than the heat emanating from the stage. We aren't sure why Busta was cut so short, but he made the most of his stage time, weaving snippets of his greatest hits into a medley that turned the pit into full-on dance mayhem. Busta is his own best hype man and he lived up to his every reputation tenfold as he brought M.O.P. onto the main stage, accompanying them in a second performance of what would become the anthem of the day, Ante Up.

The moment we had collectively waited for finally began as the stage was dressed with banners of the world for Damian Marley and Nas' closing performance. Marley appeared with dreads nearly scraping the floor and immediately launched into inspired song. A duo of militia-dressed back-up singers and full band accompanied Marley as he reminded the crowd, "Chicago we don't need no more trouble". The formality of the amphitheatre setting coupled with the night sky and gently falling rain were the perfect backdrop for a bar none musical experience.

We were slightly unsure how Nas would fit into the equation, but hesitation turned to awe as Nas joined Marley on stage to perform tracks from their upcoming project together. It was a different side of Nas than audiences were used to, but no less than his very best. Marley gave way for Nas to perform several solo rhymes, then the duo reunited to close the set. Many performers share the stage at some point in their careers, but Marley and Nas were a truly unique and complementary pairing that left a lasting impression on every ticket holder in attendance.

It occurred to us as we headed back to the city that the same fans complaining about the lack of hip-hop representation at Pitchfork Festival, or the light offerings of Lollapalooza are the same fans unwilling to travel just outside the city's limits for a full lineup of some the of the best hip-hop talent working today. Rock the Bells was more than a great day of music, it was a reminder of what it means to be a fan.