Concert Review: Elzhi, A-F-R-O + More at The Cookout Festival in Hamilton, ON

Arguably one of the coolest music festivals in Hamilton, Ontario, The Cookout Festival is back for its fourth year!  It combines the feel of a small, intimate rap concert with a community barbeque, creating a fun, laid-back atmosphere.  It also creates a strong sense of community with all the local food vendors and artists from Hamilton and the GTA who get to perform with the major headliners.  I last attended the festival in 2014, when the headliners were Apathy and CL Smooth, and the only reason I missed last year’s festival was because my favourite band, The Roots, happened to be performing in Toronto on the same night.

While previous years have seen the festival hosted at Club Absinthe, where the party could transition seamlessly from the outdoor patio to the indoor stage, 2016 would see The Cookout move to a new venue, the Bay City Music Hall.  The new location was nicer, being right by the lake, but the venue itself altered the atmosphere of the concert.  The food and the music were very much separate this time, as all the performances were inside while the food trucks and tents were set up in the parking lot.  The inside of the venue also seemed more suitable for a wedding reception than a Hip-Hop festival, as most of the dance floor was occupied by tables and chairs.

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I got to the festival several hours after doors had opened.  Clouds were building up to block out the sunset, and Montreal MC Bless was just wrapping up his set.  Shortly after his set, D-Sisive got on stage and rocked the house with his wife and daughter in the audience.  He had also had a killer set at the 2014 edition of the festival, although this crowd was much smaller and more laid-back.  After D-Sisive was a Toronto band called Darenots.  They brought a lot of energy and kept things interesting; the guitarist at one point switched to playing a second set of drums and one of the two MCs rapped while piggy-backing on his shoulders.

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Next up was a group called the Low Budget Crew, although I was out getting food at the MeatVentures truck during their set (at the old venue, you could get food on the patio while the artist performed just a few feet away).  When I got back inside, it was time for a DJ set by Diamond D, from the legendary D.I.T.C. crew.  He had some cool samples, and the crowd started a break-dance cypher on the dance floor.  After Diamond D came out and handled his business, it was time for A-F-R-O and Marco Polo.

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It’s been really cool seeing A-F-R-O (an acronym for All Flows Reach Out) establish himself in the music industry.  The 18-year-old started off by winning an online rap contest held by R.A. The Rugged Man, after which R.A. took him under his wing, helped him network and collaborate with legends and veterans, and now he’s able to go out on tour.  He currently has a collaborative EP out with Toronto producer Marco Polo, called A-F-R-O Polo, and also has a solo album as well as a collaborative project with DJ Premier in the works.

A-F-R-O and Marco Polo pretty much performed their entire EP, while also previewing some songs coming on future projects, as well as the original contest submission that got A-F-R-O discovered by Rugged Man.  The kid can really rap as fast as his studio recordings, and doesn’t have any need for a hypeman.  He can even freestyle off the top too, as he closed out his set with a freestyle verse based on random objects from the crowd handed to him on stage.

 

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After A-F-R-O’s set, most of the crowd left the stage area.  It may have been to use the washroom, to get food, or to have a smoke (I could see it being more difficult to sneak and light a joint inside this music hall), but the crowd had significantly diminished by the time Elzhi got on stage.  Elzhi is currently out promoting his new 2016 album, Lead Poison, and so his set began with those first songs as if the CD was just popped in.  The crowd accumulated again as he performed “Introverted”, and then they got hyped as he did the Elmatic track “Detroit State of Mind.”

Elzhi mostly performed songs off of his two most recent solo projects, 2016’s Lead Poison and 2011’s Elmatic, although he did include some of his guest verses on songs by Black Milk and Phat Kat.  The crowd was small, but they still played along with his back-and-forth chants, and even shouted some of the lyrics with him.  We of course threw our peace signs up in honour of the late J Dilla, as Elzhi paid several tributes to him during his set.  Elzhi wrapped up his set with “It Ain’t Hard To Tell,” and the crowd quickly dispersed.

Overall, this festival was fun, but it could have been better.  The artists were all dope, but the crowd was small and a little dull, and this seemed to be inspired by the venue’s layout.  Most people were sitting for most of the show, although they did get up and show some energy for the headliners.  The free parking and the lakeside location was an improvement on previous years, but the atmosphere at Club Absinthe seemed better, with the action all happening in one area.  It will be interesting to see what changes and additions are made for the festival’s five-year anniversary next year.

 

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