“This place is tiny, yo,” Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA proclaimed to the beyond-sold-out crowd halfway through his solo set at New York’s Knitting Factory late last night. “We’re doing two nights here, we could’ve just done one night in a big place. It’s all right, it’s intimate.” The premise of GZA’s two-night residency at the venue: To perform his 1995 rap classic Liquid Swords. Going in, most concertgoers wondered how the forty-one-year-old rapper would accurately re-create the album as a whole onstage without the occasional Wu-contributed verses. The answer became apparent from the very first song: By kicking things off with “Gold,” the fourth song on Swords, GZA wouldn’t even attempt to perform the album note-for-note. Over the course of the evening, however, he did perform the album in its entirety (sans one song), interspersing Swords tracks with others from his stellar solo career, a handful of Wu songs and some of his greatest cameo verses.
The ticket indicated the show would start at 11 PM, but it wasn’t until 12:15 AM that GZA and his ten-man posse actually entered the establishment, and it was an another fifteen minutes before they took the stage. Once before the crowd, though, GZA was as sharp as ever, never missing a verse and completely engaged with the crowd. Backed by a crew that included Killah Priest and Jackpot, GZA easily rifled through Ghostface’s verse on “4th Chamber” before launching into “Living in the World Today.”
GZA would handle a verse or two from a Swords track, then quickly segue into another song, and repeat. The glue holding the performance together was the crowd, about 300 die-hards, the majority of whom knew each verse by heart and motored along with GZA as he took sharp turns into his own solo discography with intense renditions of “Crash Your Crew,” “Animal Planet” and “Beneath the Surface.” To show how deep into the catalog he could go, he even attempted (and nailed) the jaw-dropping verse he contributed to Raekwon’s “Guillotinz (Swordz),” off that Wu member’s Only Built 4 Cuban Links, which we can only hope gets “played live in its entirety” treatment soon. GZA didn’t forget to honor his Wu-Tang roots, raising the crowd with feverish versions of “Clan in Da Front” and “Older Gods” and a constant reminder that “8 Diagrams is out now, pick that shit up.” GZA even took time to talk shit, inciting the crowd with his statement that “50 Cent ain’t got no motherfucking lyrics,” and reiterating that Wu-Tang is for real (as well as being for the children.)
Of course, no GZA or Wu-Tang show is complete without a tribute to their fallen member, Ol’ Dirty Bastard. One posse member (a man who wore furs despite the insane heat and whose sole purpose seemed to be keeping the venue rife with blunt smoke), shed his heavy coat to reveal an ODB tribute shirt. From there, GZA grabbed the mic and freestyled a cappella for two minutes about his departed friend, Dirt McGirt. To lift the crowd after the tribute, GZA and his crew exploded into ODB’s classic “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.”
The concert was intimate and exhilarating, if not amusingly scattershot, with GZA prepared to leave the stage until being reminded by audience members that he had failed to play some Liquid Swords tracks. “Oh yeah, I forgot those,” he apologized before completing “I Gotcha Back” and “B.I.B.L.E.” The show ultimately closed with the fractured synths of “Killa Hills 10304,” as GZA departed the stage triumphantly. The show wasn’t perfect, (GZA forgot to play Swords’ “Investigative Reports,” though Raekwon and Ghostface own that song anyway) but the imperfections were endearing, and the scattered presentation of Liquid Swords, combined with GZA’s flawless execution when he had the mic, made the “not-quite-what-was-advertised” performance even better than advertised.