OAKLAND — Within the intimate environs of Yoshi’s, Talib Kweli brought his lyrical mastery to the stage at the first of two shows on Wednesday. Amid the holiday decorations and low lighting, the acclaimed hip-hop artist conveyed kinetic energy and a positive mindset.
Kweli kicked off the performance by asking fans whether they believed in love.
“Make sure you love each other tonight,” he said. “And whatever you do, even if you’re fighting somebody … start with love.”
Under this directive, he launched into the verbal maze of “Love Language.” The song provided a warm intro that contrasted with Kweli’s energetic set.
Throughout the night, Talib Kweli made sure to frequently involve the attendees, often using humor. Referring to breaks between songs as interpolations, he echoed the jazz-saturated locality to give a marijuana history lesson.
“Jazz musicians … they invented smokin’ weed! Called them jazz cigarettes,” he said. Over a spooky funk loop, Kweli enticed people to get their hands up as a lead-in to the low-key, hard-hitting “Going Hard.”
“I’m gonna be like [Aerosmith’s] Steven Tyler,” Kweli joked, tying a bandana to a microphone stand. Earlier, the band teased a cover of The Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” before deflecting into a rattling, bare-bones rap. After identifying Beatles fans in the audience, Kweli and his group rolled out a beefed-up version of “Eleanor Rigby,” reimagined as a battle rap. The intro and melody were funkified but recognizable. Thereafter, the song took on a life of its own.
All the music was performed live, with no loops or DJ to program pre-recorded tracks. Kweli’s backing band, The Whisky Boys, supplied the musical landscape for his lyrical travels. The band laid down jazz-tinged, bass-heavy grooves peppered with tight drum rolls and crafty hi-hat cymbal maneuvers. The rhythms were chunky and intricate as the band locked in. Bassist Brady Watt achieved a thick ropy tone that retained enough clarity to distinguish his rapid playing. At one point he unleashed an extended bass solo during which he explored pentatonic blues scales and runs of jazz chords.
Keyboardist Chris Rob was no less impressive. Throughout the set, Rob let fly with casual flash and lively backing vocals. Playing the lone treble instrument, he carried the melodies, yet was just as integral to the rhythm section.
Dedications and homages featured prominently in the selection of songs and Kweli’s frequent discourses. He dedicated “Astronomy” to Boston rap duo Gang Starr. During a long medley, Rob explored the musical themes of various popular songs while Kweli made announcements over the top. Over an organ crescendo, the keyboardist transitioned into Vince Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown” piano theme.
“This one is for Phife Dawg!” he said as the group gave voice to the familiar refrain, “Here we go, yo!” DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” also made a brief appearance.
Kweli and the band rounded out the set with adroit gems of conscious lyricism and skillful musicianship. They performed “I Try” in a Cuban-influenced style that got fans shaking and grooving. The high-IQ fast rap “Knowledge Of Self” benefited from delicate vocal harmonies in the refrain. Kweli told a brief story about jazz singer Nina Simone, and the group finished with a rousing performance of “Get By.”
Talib Kweli presented a mix of styles that remained upbeat, accessible and diverse. He gave shout-outs to each decade from the 1960s to the ’90s. Many times he coaxed concertgoers to move to the music. Delivering a strong hip-hop set that toed the lines with jazz and funk, he used the small room to amplify a close-knit atmosphere. The hour-long set provided further evidence of the artist’s creativity and dedication.