Blame residual showers from the strongest hurricane on record, but Saturday’s Fan Fest-closing set from rap legends Public Enemy played to a thinned herd of what seemed to be less than 200 people. By the time the band hit the Bud Light stage on Rainey Street just before 11 p.m., a lifeless huddled mass awaited its free concert with all the excitement of, well, red-blooded Texans pondering single-seat racecars on a weekend where there is football.
But then Flavor Flav came out in a throwback Cassius Clay hoodie snuggled over his signature chest clock, riding a hoverboard scooter. Chuck D wore a dark rain jacket brandished with his ensemble’s unmistakable logo (a B-boy in a sniper’s crosshairs) — and hammered home his vital scriptures like a towering preacher who loves to swing his microphone baseball-style. A close-knit hour of anthemic, sonic chaos ensued.
“These shows turn out to be the best ones,” Chuck D said of the menacing rain and wet stage. He wasn’t wrong.
Twenty-eight years into arming America’s disenfranchised and politically minded with dire warnings about societal perils, Long Island, New York’s Public Enemy tours as the most urgent nostalgia act in the business. (They continue to churn out new work, to be clear, but fans gathered to hear hits.) Joining 50-somethings Flav and Chuck as PE: spoken-word lightning rod and hypeman Professor Griff, two members of in-house army the Security of the First World, an intrusive videographer, a drummer, jazz rock guitarist Khari Wynn, a bassist, four additional hypemen and turntable technician DJ Lord.
These days Public Enemy is a marching band with directives for raised fists, call-and-response wordplay and anti-racist chants. Given the washed-out delegation on hand, you looked out of place not following along. KGSR’s Andy Langer on Twitter called it the most intimate Public Enemy show in Austin since the band played the Back Room on East Riverside in ’91.
And while Formula 1 fans who used Ferrari flags as shawls were spotted leaving early, the reward for toughing out the elements was seeing the band blaze through focused, revamped versions of its best of: “My Uzi Weighs a Ton,” “Rebel Without a Pause,” “911 Is a Joke,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “Show ‘Em Whatcha Got,” “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos” and “Fight the Power.” Attacked with supplemental musicians, the late-‘80s standards rattled in cages; “Bring the Noise” shook with a thrash punk arrangement. “He Got Game,” from the 1998 Spike Lee film by the same name, trucked past its recorded counterpart with a live sample of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”
The fervent believers included couples under umbrellas, crutches hoisted in the air, crowd-surfers, handlebar-‘stache hipsters, white men with dreadlocks and one mellow golden dog.
Earlier Montreal DJ A Trak closed his hip-hop and EDM-fueled set with an optimistic assertion: “In the battle of party people versus Hurricane Patricia I think the party people won tonight,” he said.
His projection proved spot on. But the occasion was nonetheless cold, windy and unpleasant to no fault of event organizers. Puddles surfaced across the makeshift plot nestled onto Red River and Cesar Chavez—essentially an extended IHOP parking lot. The space provided an ample view of under-construction condominiums and you couldn’t help but become cynical about seeing a subversive act presented between branding efforts from Monster Energy Drink.
But lest we forget the concert was free. In a city where world-beating rap stars appear behind platinum badges, three-day wristbands and lotteries, catching a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee in the streets like it’s 1989 restores order.