Arrested Development: Bimbo’s, San Francisco

AT ARRESTED Development concerts, its not enough to wave your hands around; “put your souls up” is the cry. Three songs in, Speech stopped everything and brought white-haired Baba Oje forward. It was time to “pour libation” for the ancestors. And no one snickered. How could we, when we’d just felt mesmerized by the new songs ‘Africa’s Inside Me’ and ‘Kneelin’ at my Altar’? The live renditions of these songs actually improved on the studio versions, something incredibly rare for rap concerts. And the eight women and men singing, rapping, and dancing around onstage in a whirl of different directions gave symbolic credibility to AD’s fantasy of a Utopian Afrocentric village.

This is Arrested Development’s greatest gift the ability to stage symbolic dramas with an emotional punch sufficient to dispel one’s doubts about the specifics. A month before the release of Zingalamaduni, Arrested Development was in San Francisco as part of a brief “Chitlin Circuit” tour, a series of shows you could get into only through radio-station giveaways and music-industry connections. Is playing a few carefully selected shows in advance of joining the WOMAD tour really akin to the endless hardships and lousy venues of the Chitlin Circuit? No, but a band with a song like ‘Ache’n for Acres’, a sharecropper’s sentiment more relevant to 1894 than 1994, can get away with it. AD’s hip hop is a crossover no one could have anticipated — out of the contemporary inner city, across time and region, conjuring a place where blackness is not a confine, but a fertile continuum of meanings and possibilities.

The next night Arrested Development was on one of the last Arsenio Hall shows, bringing its enormous capacity for sentimental spectacle to late night’s master of the same. The band opened with ‘Ease My Mind’, Speech rapping the line “from my mama’s lips between my mama’s hips” with the melodic dexterity of a jazz singer. Gil Scott-Heron made a touching surprise appearance, expressing his solidarity. And though I’d just seen Arrested Development in the small-club environment of Bimbo’s, watching the band on television was at least as powerful an experience. Sharing a real space with Speech and company felt no more intimate than sharing a virtual one. AD combine musicality and iconography, not musicality and personality. It doesn’t make them any less powerful. But in a very ’90s way, it does make them a little less human.

© Eric WeisbardSpin, August 1994

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