Noise Pop has come and gone again, and this year, the fifteenth installment of the Bay Area's preeminent music festival, had some real solid lineups if no eye-popping, big-ticket event like last year's visit from the Flaming Lips. The triumphant Bay Area return of 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson, the Sebadoh reunion, The Dandy Warhols and Cake notwithstanding, this year's fest was all about bands and artists just beginning to stretch out and explore their newfound acclaim. Bands like Tapes 'n Tapes, who played the opening night party, as well as Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, Midlake, The Ponys, Ghostland Observatory and Clinic.
But like every year, there are some lesser-known names a little further down the marquee that when you discover them, make the festival all the more rewarding. I wanted to catch some of these acts, diligently identified before the festival began, like Montreal's latest indie-pop darling Malajube and local psychedelic rockers Wooden Shjips, but ended up getting blindsided instead by the fantastic sets of Afro-Cuban groove merchants Ray Barbee & The Mattson Two and a Los Angeles hip-hop artist dubbed The Gray Kid.
O.K., maybe you already knew about The Gray Kid. You knew about him back in '06 when his crack-up Justin Timberlake parody "PaxilBack" was a YouTube hit. Or maybe you're an avid watcher of 30 Rock and you were groovin' to his soul-flecked, quick-witted hip-hop as early as last Thursday at 10 p.m. Or just possibly, you're like most of the crowd waiting for Ghostland Observatory to take the stage on Saturday night who were hearing the Los Angeles-based MC for the first time. I won't reveal where I fall on that timeline, but suffice it to say that I wasn't completely sure what to expect from his live show.
Just minutes after taking the stage, The Gray Kid, aka Steve Cooper, had already won the crowd over through sheer will, careening around the stage, coiling up tightly with potential energy and delivering his lyrics with a manic fervor, practically hurling the rhymes from his head out at the audience via his hand gestures. He obsessively preens, smoothing out his hair across his forehead, and demands the audience's attention like a seasoned showman with a righteous belief in his talents.
All the while, he spits out rapid-fire, adroitly-phrased lyrics sometimes reminiscent of Eminem, interspersed with soul grooves and an R&B falsetto, delivered over hip-hop and dance beats. The influence of Dirty South rap is heard, especially on the rollicking "Oh My," as are the genre-bending explorations of Outkast. His lyrics have the smart-alecky feel of the Beastie Boys and his falsetto might remind one of Prince. If you're noticing that a lot of big-name, popular acts are being mentioned, that's because The Gray Kid is, at his core, a pop artist. His onstage demeanor is primarily a means of connecting with his audience. He ingratiates himself with the crowd through witty and irreverent lyrics about L.A.'s silicon-and-botox-addicted Barbie dolls, and draws them still closer by asking that they repeat the final line to his hook-laden driving song "Eh Man" along with him, "I eat with my hands. I drive with my knees." By the end of his set, it's obvious that he's gained hundreds of new fans.
If you didn't know The Gray Kid before now, you certainly will before too long. He'll make sure of that.