No, he did not wear Hammer Pants. Instead, MC Hammer opted for a tasteful white sweatsuit -- baggy, yes, but you certainly couldn't jump off a building, inflate it parachute-style, and float harmlessly to the ground whilst shooting a Taco Bell commercial. Just a plain ol' sweatsuit. It was a fine sweatsuit. "Ooooh, I want that sweatsuit," cooed a nearby woman, nearly inaudible over the raucous roar of the crowd.
"He hasn't been onstage in ten years," thundered the between-act emcee. "He's had his ups and downs. And he's on his way back up."
And with that, MC Hammer sauntered back onstage.
We are live Saturday night at Concord Pavilion's fourth annual Old School Funk Fest, a profoundly odd venue at which to reinstate Hammer Time, given that our hero is neither funk nor -- based on the criteria set by the rest of the bill (the SOS Band, the Ohio Players, Cameo, Morris Day and the Time) -- particularly old school. No matter. He's here anyway. And we're cheering him, loudly, lustily, because this man deserves more than a guest suite in VH1 D-list, former-celebrity hell.
So, let's meet MC Hammer's new friends -- suddenly "Let's Get It Started" (his song, not the Black Eyed Peas abomination, young'un) is blaring, and a troupe of teenage dancers busts Fame-worthy moves as dudes with A's and Raiders flags race back and forth behind them. And there's Hammer, cutting a few rugs of his own and hitting on the ladies in the front row: "What kinda shoes you got on, baby? Is them pumps?" And we're on to "Pumps and a Bump," one of the least erotic attempts at eroticism in hip-hop history.
Then Hammer jumped offstage and romped off into the crowd, a crucial yet vexing component of his 45-minute set. Initially this seemed to be a populist showman maneuver -- perhaps he'd dash up to Chronicle Pavilion's lawn and bust a few choice moves -- and he seemed playful about it; realizing he couldn't get back onstage in time for the beginning of "2 Legit 2 Quit," he announced "I gotta kick butt right here!" and started throwing down in the aisles. Mayhem ensued. But no, mostly he just sorta walked through the crowd, surrounded by a minor entourage of water-bottle-toting yes men and security dudes while barking his lyrics in a faux-badass style at odds with the warm, calm, laid-back flow that once made him ludicrously famous. And it eventually dawned on the rapt crowd that he wasn't so much embracing the audience as avoiding the stage.
I mean, the dancing kids were cute and everything, but, please, Hammer, don't strand 'em. The whole affair bore a distinct talent-show aroma -- he introduced several mostly pint-sized guest dancers and singers, but did very little showstopping of his own. The DJ, meanwhile, took the term "showstopping" a bit too literally; Hammer's DJ is named Mike, a fact we gleaned from the ten or so times Hammer had to say "Mike! Play that beat!" during extended awkward pauses between tunes.
It was all a bit bewildering. And by the time Hammer got around to introducing A beat you just ... can't ... touch, the response to "U Can't Touch This" -- a smash hit of incalculable proportions, the only possible song Rhino could've used as the first track of its imminent seven-CD 1990s box set -- was shockingly muted. He lost the crowd, which was, incidentally, the best crowd I've ever had the privilege of joining.
Primary reason: Black people have more fun at concerts than white people.
White people: Rhapsodize about bands named "Clap Your Hands Say Yeah."
Black people: Actually clap hands, say Yeah.
The Funk Fest was, from 2:30 p.m. on, a riotous block party wherein the between-act DJ frequently got more love than the headliners, spinning everything from Bobby Brown to James Brown and eliciting unified choruses of Ohhhhhhhh!s whenever he dropped something especially hot ("Mary Jane" nearly caused a riot). An enormous dude in a baby-blue polo shirt brought the house down shaking his ass in the aisles to "Me Myself and I," exerting more effort than MC Hammer. (The woman next to him in the "Shut Up and Dance" T-shirt nicely summed up the show's dominant philosophy.) The lawn looked like a nuclear-scale backyard BBQ utopia.
Furthermore, the actual bands received exactly the amount of love and affection they deserved. So tepid praise for the Ohio Players (who, by way of stage banter, noted that their lead singer was in a local hospital with swollen ankles and high blood pressure), and widespread jubilation for Cameo, a ridiculously dressed sleaze-funk outfit responsible for that flukey hit "Word Up" and roughly 85 percent of Andre 3000's current shtick.
Hammer was simultaneously the anomaly and star attraction of this joyful hoedown, giving the old-school plank of his fan base the first look at what would undoubtedly be the greatest comeback in pop music history. (Only Michael Jackson could top it, and, well, you know.) But every flash of former genius -- that choice slow-jam remake of "Have You Seen Her," some legitimately uplifting gospel pop on "Goin' Up Yonder" -- was quickly consumed by slapdash Gong Show randomness while the host moseyed aimlessly about the crowd.
How intense a comeback attempt is this, anyway? Hammer pimped several tunes from his evidently imminent new album, Full Blast, including one tune called "Cha Cha" that rather disturbingly recalled "Mambo #5," and another ("Monster Mash" is my best guess -- dude doesn't exactly articulate) that sounded for all the world like the Federation, filthy Rick Rock electro slaps and all. But by that point Hammer had ceded rapping duties entirely to a string of adolescent dudes who didn't embarrass themselves, but don't exactly have the juice to headline an amphitheater festival, either.
We love you, Hammer. Truly bring the noise, and you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams. Get a better DJ, sharpen those dance steps, leave the kids at home, and for the love of Christ, stay onstage.
Oh, and one other thing: No "Addams Groove." Please.
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