For anyone who has heard Aesop Rock’s music before, the most curious part of seeing him live is that his voice isn’t as deep in person. On recordings, his wolfy baritone usually creeps its way into the woofers, making the proposition of bookworm hip-hop coming from a Jewish kid from Long Island even more absurd. Here, it’s higher and nasally and… well, a bit more human; I’ve never caught Barry White live, but I’d imagine the contrast is similar. On top of that, he’s not partaking in his signature overenunciation, so the vocals can’t help but turn to mush.
Not that anybody is paying that much attention; all over the place, giddy pockets of twentysomethings are attacking one another with spurts from the logo-stamped promotional squirt guns being handed out for free around the corner, and those who aren’t in on the fight are either laughing along or grimacing as they duck for cover. Most are probably too toasted to track all the dense verbal content anyway; one particularly brazen fellow is roaming around with a large sign, a request for drugs scrawled across it in Sharpie.
If you’re thinking this all sounds a little strange, you’re absolutely right. McCarren Park Pool is totally remarkable as a venue, and I haven’t been anywhere like this in a long time. A long-since abandoned corner of the park’s recreation facilities, it was turned into a halfassed yet totally awesome concert venue by ambitious promoters who saw it for the prime real estate it was and now spend their afternoons herding audiences into the pool bed and stacking PA gear atop what may have once been a lifeguard station. For some reason, we’re inundated with various forms of aquatic entertainment paraphernalia—the squirt guns are just the tip of the iceberg—even though the concrete pool is as dry as a Ben Stein zinger. Karmically, it’s like a small-scale urban renewal project, albeit one for Williamsburg hipsters.
Outside, though, the renewal efforts are actually quite real, and quite a bit larger in scope. A longtime resident of the area comments on the posh buildings peeking up over the treetops just outside the pool’s limits; none of them were there four years ago, he says. They look very expensive, and their gleaming glass facades suggest posh interiors filled with leather sofas, new families, and the constituents of the ongoing gentrification of Brooklyn.
Anyone wanna take a guess as to what the next casualty might be?
As the penultimate show in the weekly series of free block parties—Sunday afternoon being less than prime real estate for Live Nation, which runs the ticketed shows that happen the rest of the time—Aesop’s set is a farewell, or at least the windup to one, for this unlikely cultural hub. It’s now on its way to turning back into a regular pool, the kind where they don’t host rock shows but cater instead to the fledgling parents found in the gleaming new buildings.
Aesop Rock’s set list is accordingly strong, consisting mostly of material from last year’s excellent None Shall Pass. Still, when he starts pulling songs from the back catalog, I’m surprised by the fact that I recognize them anyway. “Big Bang” and “Daylight”, in particular, come rushing back after spending several years in post-college exile; for an allegedly sort-of-underground rapper, he sure seems to have eaten up a big part of my subconscious. “How far back do you want to go?” he asks the crowd. As it turns out, that’s not as steep a challenge as it might seem.
When the time comes for the obligatory DJ solo, Aesop and Rob Sonic, his Def Jux label mate and occasional hype man, hunch over and watch instead of scampering backstage to the caviar and groupies as though they’re genuinely interested in what Big Wiz is about to pull out. I sure am: Big Wiz skips right over the verbose scratching I’m expecting, instead chopping and reassembling samples into a coherent bassline which makes all his other twiddles seem like a real song. Aw, nuts. This is actually pretty good. How am I supposed to work my bathroom break in now?
“None Shall Pass” closes the set, but Wiz takes it upon himself to drop the beat out completely on beats 15 and 16 of every two-bar loop so the crowd can shout out the titular line. This is a tragedy, I think, because the continuity between those two chords was by far the most driving thing on the entire album; seriously, try queuing it up next time you have to walk fast in order to get somewhere on time. In general, Aesop needs better beats. Wiz is a competent DJ, as we saw during his solo break, but Aesop’s brainiac 99th-percentile rhymes call for top-notch backdrops. He usually leaves you so dizzy after each verse that you don’t even remember that there might have been a problem along the way, but rapping about barnacles and constantly using four-dollar words doesn’t mean you can’t also hire top shelf producers.
“This is one of the best days of my career right here,” Aesop says as the turntable belts start to cool. Musicians are generally full of shit, and usually they’re lying when they say things like that in Cleveland, but here I’m inclined to buy it: I can’t remember the last time I was at a show that transcended its circumstances like this. Between my toes, the sky blue paint on the dried pool bed is peeling back, giving way to hideous swaths of mottled grey concrete. Soon, it’ll be wrapped up again, this time in a fresh coat of seafoam green or aquamarine, filled almost to capacity with water and kids to splash in it and probably on its way to becoming a favorite Saturday afternoon destination for all those new parents. I suppose I’m expected to throw up some devil horns now and proclaim this an epic tragedy, but those guys have their needs too.