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Carl Hancock Rux

(20 Apr 2013: The Apollo Theater — New York)

It’s approximately five blocks between The Apollo Theater and the building where Carl Hancock Rux spent his childhood. Raised on 127th Street between Lenox Ave. and Fifth Ave., young Carl needed to walk about six minutes to glimpse the theater’s legendary marquee. However, the distance between his youth and his recent appearance at the Apollo is something that cannot be measured in years or any unit of time, for Carl Hancock Rux embodies a few different lives - poet, recording artist, playwright, author of novels and operas. All of those lives crystalized during Rux Revival, the second of two evenings that the Apollo’s “Salon Series” dedicated to Rux. True to his wide-ranging sources of inspiration, he gave a multi-textured, multi-layered performance honoring the release of his fourth album, Homeostasis.


“I’m really happy to be here tonight,” he said upon taking the stage. Accompanied by Burnt Sugar, the jazz fusion ensemble conducted by Greg Tate, plus two background vocalists and music technician/Homeostasis co-producer Hamilton Kirby, Rux held court before a sold-out audience. Flowers cascaded down an oversized screen that changed colors and featured kaleidoscopic video projections of the album’s artwork, an appropriate visual given the shapeshifting quality of the songs.


Matching the album’s sequence, “Shackles” opened the show and drew a line between Rux’s past and present. (The previous night’s Rux Revue culled material from his earlier albums.) “There were shackles on my mind,” he intoned in a deep baritone before unloading the psychic transgressions of his past. The music swelled and sparks seemed to fly as violinist Mazz Swift moved her bow across the strings, like friction breaking shackles free. Following a maelstrom of sound, Rux punctuated the song simply by whispering the title. He was duly greeted by applause from a spellbound audience.


Draped in a long, flowing gown painted in shades of deep orange, red, and pink, singer-songwriter Martha Redbone floated into view for the haunting “Silence Speak Softly”. Burnt Sugar provided the soundtrack for a dream that Rux rendered through a combination of melody and spoken passages. Entranced, he shut his eyes as Redbone sang the refrain “Silence please speak softly to me”. Her presence was that of a muse, her full-bodied voice piercing an ambient soundscape that included a delicate melody played by keyboardist Lon Kaiser. Redbone and Rux created a dynamic aural space that brought the audience into the duo’s shared reverie.


More than 150 sets of eyes, both naked and bespectacled, watched as Rux launched into “One”, a thrilling piece where a river of honeyed words flowed from the artist’s mouth. Bathed in coral hues, he sat on a stool and created a rhythm all his own as his feet tapped the floor in lace-up boots. Sweat trickled down his face while he testified “there is but one, one, one, one way to God ... and that is through the heart”.


In a show where each song was a climax unto itself, “Homeostasis” was the peak to the first part of the evening’s proceedings. A groove rose within Rux as he moved in place to the band’s opening vamp. His body dipped and undulated, simulating the motion of the notes in the chorus melody. Burnt Sugar gave Rux ample support: trombonist Dave Smoota Smith and sax player V. Jeffrey Smith played their parts like dueling horns, Chris Eddleton deftly held the rhythm on the drums, Jason DiMatteo furnished a loping bottom on upright bass, and Greg Tate led the music to a fever pitch before socking it full force to the audience. “Alright. Let me sit down after that,” Rux said after the fireworks dissipated.


Burnt Sugar summoned a mysterious atmosphere redolent of film noir on “Old Man”. Eddleton, Smith, and Swift played their respective trombone, sax, and violin parts in unison while guitarists Ben Tyree and Andre LaSalle bookended the stage during their guitar solos. Rux alternated between the deeper register of his speaking voice and the upper range of his singing voice, seeking wisdom from the title subject: “talk to me, tell me what I should know, where to go, what to be.” Though the “old man” might have been a clear image in Rux’s mind, there’s enough room for interpretation that the audience could have envisioned the old man as a person, a statue, a totem, or even Rux’s future self.


However, nothing was left to the imagination when Rux announced his second special guest for the evening—Nona Hendryx. He prefaced the song with a story about how he met Hendryx back in the late-‘90s at CBGB’s when Toshi Reagon invited him to perform poetry for a show. Rux recalled, “Nona said to me, ‘I like what you did. Have you ever considered going into the studio? I happen to have one.’ That began the whole shebang.” After meeting Hendryx, Rux secured a record deal with Sony/550 Music followed by stints with Giant Step and Thirsty Ear. In a sense, Hendryx’s appearance on the Homeostasis album brings Rux’s history as a recording artist full circle to the present moment.

To witness Rux and Hendryx set “Razor and Blade” aflame with a full band was the kind of experience that prompts an audience member to proudly proclaim “I was there”. A visible energy shifted in the room as Rux and Hendryx intertwined their voices and spirits. The two chanted the song’s “Work it on out, work it on out” hook with background vocalists Abby Dobson and James Staten, who stepped in time with Burnt Sugar’s groove. The band broke the rhythm down, then brought it back up, then brought it down again at Rux’s behest. The audience soaked the stage with waves of applause.


Rux closed the show with an extended take on “So High”, stirring the audience to ecstatic heights the way DJ Larry Levan would cast spells over the crowd at Paradise Garage. “Higher ... higher ... higher”, he sang, the emotion stemming from deep inside his gut and spilling forth through his voice with a guttural roar. Greg Tate masterfully steered the band towards a scintillating apex as Abby Dobson unleashed a note that could only be described as operatic birdsong.


Like the set’s other six songs, “So High” was a revelation. While not totally departing from their studio counterparts, each performance magnified some of the most compelling aspects of the album versions. Rux also left the audience with some gifts waiting to be unwrapped on Homeostasis: “Trouble”, “Joy”, and “Final Hour” may not have made the Apollo setlist but they’re three of the album’s most moving tracks, finding Rux in a contemplative, even sentimental, state of mind.


It’s a testament to Carl Hancock Rux that those in attendance could each draw different meanings from the experience of Homeostasis in concert. Every song resembled a different mirror depending on the gaze of the person listening and watching. Earlier in the evening, Rux remarked, “It’s alright to let silence speak softly to you, if you can hear what it’s saying.” Rux spoke, not in silence, but in words, gestures, whispers, and screams. The audience heard him, perhaps in more ways than the artist could ever have fathomed all those lifetimes ago on 127th Street.


Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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