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Black Constellation at the Frye


Outside the Frye Art Museum, Saturday night was cloaked in the seeping dark of a frigid, moonless night. Inside, the Frye's performance space was body-warm and brighter than day, the room lit a preternatural electric white by a dangling matrix of flourescent tubes. Set at the back of the museum, this was the stage where Seattle's Black Constellation, a collaboration between hip-hop innovators Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction, would perform the finale of Moment Magnitude, the Frye's eclectic, winter-long multimedia exhibition.

Before the show, a diverse and stylish assortment wandered the museum's halls, browsing Moment Magnitude's offerings: the lumpen, biologically-suggestive sculpture of Jeffrey Mitchell; Anne Fenton's oblique and mundane photos and videos; Rebecca Brown's iconographic altars. Eventually everyone amassed in the performance space, faces shining under LILIENTHAL|ZAMORA's Through Hollow Lands, its lattice of commerical-grade flourescent tubing, its pearly light magnified by gleaming white walls.

The trio of Tendai Mairaire, Ishmael Butler and Cat Harris-White took the stage in street chothes (Stasia Irons of THEESatisfaction was absent); Maraire and Butler wisely wore shades. This was in all likelihood the brightest-lit performance of their career.

For the next hour, the trio wove in and out of songs from Shabazz Palace's three releases, focusing mainly on last year's Sub Pop debut, Black Up. Nothing they played, however, was a reproduction of a recording. They opened with a mutated recording of The Lord's Prayer, which was the same way they opened their concert at the Neptune in late December. The effect was Funkadelic-like, a disembodied voice preaching psychedelic gospel. The trio delved deeply into improvised, scat-style ambiance between songs. Maraire soloed on amplified kalimba and shakers. Butler rapped in a singsong voice with the relaxed authority of a Zen master, snippets of lyrics emerging mantra-like: Yeah yeah. Diamond dust. Harris-White cooed what seemed like an unending, sinuous melody. They melded songs together, broke in and out of them, backed them together in novel ways. They dropped "Like You," a rarity from their early EP, still one of the strongest songs in their canon. The set was billed as "An Ode to Octavia (Part 13)" but it diverged little from the Shabazz/Satisfaction template, which itself is wildly divergent from one show to another.

For the last year or so, Shabazz has performed in this improvised, deconstructed style, fascinating veteran audiences with their unpredictability, luring newcomes with their magnetic presence. Their music is equally potent on an outdoor stage at twilight, laser-lit latenight at the Neptune Theater and cast in a flourescent glow inside an art museum. The overwhelming glare inside the Frye did little to demystify Seattle's most enigmatic musical project.

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