His vocal dexterity is impressive, shuttling between rapid-fire delivery and freeform poetic musings.
The October evening on which Sage Francis is set to perform is damp and dreary. Nonetheless, as I arrive at The Fleece, people are already loitering outside, smoking rollies and clutching pints. For a Monday night, the turnout is impressive; a steady stream of punters keeps trickling in, so by the time the first act gets up on stage, the venue already appears pretty packed.
Badbelly, a self-described ‘fat Welsh bloke’ from the town of Cwmbran, has the unenviable task of trying to warm up an entirely sober and stationary crowd. He doesn’t let that put him off though, and proceeds to regale the audience with his homemade beats and lyrics. His rapping, over laptop backing tracks, doesn’t fully convince, yet he can’t be faulted for his courage or commitment. Lyrically, he tackles themes such as fatherhood, divorce, depression and environmental destruction, the latter featuring a slightly jarring sample from Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’. This is hip hop of a kind, in its most self-deprecating form, but he comes into his own when he ditches the beats in favour of spoken word – cracking jokes about being mocked by his dad for listening to rap music and moving to Southampton for work only to mistake the city’s dockside cranes for giant giraffes.
Sage Francis skulks onto the stage around 20 minutes later, unannounced and almost unnoticed; a white hoodie covering his bald head, his back to the crowd. He wraps a flag bearing the logo of Strange Famous – the record label he founded – around himself like a cape, before launching into some of his signature tunes, including ‘Escape Artist’ and ‘Crack Pipes’. His vocal dexterity is impressive, shuttling between rapid-fire delivery and freeform poetic musings. The crowd, however, takes a while to adjust to his flow, and is still a bit too well-behaved until the start of his melancholic anthem ‘Sea Lion’, by which point there’s definitely a few heads bopping. He’s not afraid of busting out some moves either: the avuncular 37 year-old is by no means a small guy – he jokes at one point that he’s becoming a more ‘well-rounded’ MC – but that doesn’t prevent him from throwing himself around the stage in a pantomime flurry of pseudo-striptease dance moves during ‘Dance Monkey’.
It’s clear that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. But the defining element of his show is the juxtaposition of light and dark: brooding, introspective tracks often delivered in a kind of self-effacing deadpan. During ‘Make em Purr’ – which recalls a period of hermit-like isolation ‘in a self-inflicted prison’ – a home video of him playing with his cats is projected onto the screen behind him. Similarly, he precedes ‘Makeshift Patriot’ – his dissection of the US War on Terror – with a hilarious rendition of the Team America theme tune ‘America, Fuck Yeah!’.
It’s a rare talent that can singlehandedly hold down a 400-strong crowd in this way. Yet some of the audience still seem a bit nonplussed, and for much of the gig it feels as though the energy he puts into the performance is never fully reciprocated. The more cynical part of me thinks this may be due to the ‘indie hip hop’ label that the poet/rapper has been shouldered with; a moniker that feels as though it was deliberately designed to appeal to audiences who don’t ordinarily listen to hip hop. The inertia of the audience does finally begin to dissolve with the unexpected arrival of impressively-bearded UK wordsmith Scroobius Pip on stage. The two MCs bounce around each other for a couple of tracks, their vocal interchange coming to the fore during ‘Let em come’, and the crowd finally springs to life.
After the final track, Sage Francis grabs one of the poles close to the stage and slides down it, fireman-style, demanding group hugs, which he spends the next 15 minutes or so administering to everyone who wants one; an artist seemingly in love with his fans.
Check out ‘Make Em Purr’ right here: