“butter” – a tribe called quest (1991)

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Well, another Pitchfork Music Festival has come in gone.  This was my fourth time attending the fest and it has stayed consistently fun.  As always, the crowd wasn’t unmanageable and my enjoyment of the fest was helped with cooler weather and no rain.

I also got to see a lot of great performances.  Thurston Moore was loud, noisy, and amazing.  Angel Olsen was a real treat, but I think her backup singer was more excited to be there than she was.  George Clinton was a missed opportunity because I left after 15 minutes due to poor sound that was later corrected.  PJ Harvey’s performance, while good, seemed out of place at an outdoor music fest in the daytime.  The Feelies were furious with George Clinton for bleeding into their set time which affected their playing.  And I made happy memories watching LCD Soundsystem with Carolyn.  All in all, it was a great time.

Though, one performance stood above the rest.  If you had asked me prior to the fest who was the one act I absolutely had to see, the answer would come fast and easily: A Tribe Called Quest.

I had been a fan of the group since college.  While I had discovered a few of the other artists during the time, A Tribe Called Quest preceded all of them.  Plus, I have listened to them more than the others.  So, when they were announced as the headliner, I knew I had to make time to see them.

As I made my way to a spot left of the sound booth about 45 minutes before the show, a lot of questions were coming to mind.  This was the group’s first festival performance since the death of Phife Dawg last year.  They had performed on Saturday Night Live since his death, but that was in a more controlled setting.  This wasn’t television. This was a full-length concert performance in front of thousands of people.  And everyone, including me, was wondering “What about Phife Dawg?”

I was talking with my friends about the possibilities.  Perhaps the others were just going to rap Phife Dawg’s rhymes.  Or maybe they were going to bring out a guest or a slew of guests throughout the tour to substitute.  We even joked about bringing out a hologram like what happened with Tupac a few years prior.  W when the lights dimmed and the show commenced, we got our answer.

Q-yip, Jarobi, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were present and joined with guest MC Consequence.  However, while there were three MCs, there were four microphones on stage.  One of them (I cannot remember who) announced that they were going to leave the mic open for in memory of Phife Dawg.  This was a touching gesture to include a lost founding member who could never be replaced.  However, the inclusion of the microphone was more than just symbolic.

After a few songs into the set, the group gave Phife Dawg the mic.  When this happened, the group would step away and a single spotlight would shine on the empty mic as the studio vocals of Phife’s solos would play.  It was completely mesmerizing scene.  A voice thundered through the audience, but no one was behind the mic.  The experience was captivating and turned what could’ve been a standard tribute into someone more engaging and meaningful.

This scene happened a few times, but none were as impactful as when “Butter” played.  A cut from the group’s second studio album The Low End Theory, this performance of “Butter” represented one of the best tributes I had ever seen.  The other members stepped to the side of the stage.  Nearly all the lights came down except for the one spotlight illuminating the empty mic.  Muhammed then played an acapella version of Phife Dawg’s verse of “Butter” which had seen become a career-defining song for the group.  When the verse was over, the rest joined in as a picture of the group was projected on the background.  The entire performance was touching as Q-Tip turned away from the audience and stared into Phife’s eyes as he rapped.

What could have easily been a phoned-in performance turned into something much more.  And frankly, I wouldn’t expect any less of from A Tribe Called Quest.  They have, for nearly 30 years, been stellar performers and impeccable showmen.  The professionalism and empathy conveyed in Saturday’s headlining performance will be one for the music history books.

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