Any hip-hop act kicking off its first U.S. tour in nearly a decade would return to face some serious questions. And bigger ones than usual awaited the reunited Wu-Tang Clan last night in New Haven, Connecticut, where the colorful collective officially began the post-Ol' Dirty Bastard era.
Most of the uncertainty had to do with the absence of ODB, the always-unpredictable founding Wu member who died of a drug overdose in November 2004 after years of bizarre misadventures. How would his eight surviving bandmates memorialize him on this "tribute tour"? And, more importantly, who would try to fill his considerable shoes, before a jam-packed audience of about 750 at Toad's Place?
As the GZA noted during a freestyle homage to ODB, "There is no replacement." For the most part, longtime supersub Cappadonna took ODB's spot in the rotation, and the group's producer and mastermind, the super-intense, camo-clad RZA, gave the show occasional jolts of energy.
Yet it was Method Man, the Wu's first superstar, who rose to the occasion. After making fans wait years for his latest solo effort, the critically savaged Tical 0: The Prequel, expectations for Meth may have diminished. But from the moment he appeared Tuesday -- rhyming the classic Wu track that bears his name -- to an impromptu bit of crowd-surfing at show's close, the former Clifford Smith was the focal point, igniting fans with his easy charisma.
Method Man also spearheaded the eulogies to ODB, declaring, "We are not going to mourn Ol' Dirty Bastard's death. We are going to celebrate Ol' Dirty Bastard's life." He led the group through Dirty's signature hits, "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" and "Brooklyn Zoo" with elan, though the tunes certainly missed ODB's one-of-a-kind delivery.
The first hour of the ninety-five-minute performance featured solo spots by the various group members. That insured an erratic flow to the evening, although there were several highlights. U-God unveiled a new song, the ominous "You Don't Want to Dance," while Raekwon made a powerful run through "Incarcerated Scarfaces," from his 1995 debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. (The RZA insisted that the long-awaited follow-up to that highly regarded album will finally be out this year.)
When the eight Wu MCs -- plus three times as many associates and hangers-on -- finally appeared together on the crowded stage, their time spent apart was evident. One of the few songs to get a full airing, "Triumph," from the Wu's 1997 sophomore set, ebbed and flowed maddeningly, with the rappers stepping on each other's lines as they tried to avoid stepping on each other's feet.
It was the material from the group's legendary debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), that got fists pumping. Even in drastically shortened form, and with the spooky soul subtleties of its backing track inaudible, "C.R.E.A.M." was a high point, spiraling upwards as the band fed off the crowd's energy.
What that apparent nostalgia means for the future of the Wu is a question that will remain unanswered until a new album finally appears. Until then, and even without ODB, the group's huge grab bag of personalities and material should be enough to keep those "W" signs aloft.