“Cornell got the best weed in New York,” Reggie Watts proclaimed as he strode onto the Bailey Hall stage Friday evening. “Founded in 1812 by Chris Cornell, a lot of people think Ethieca [Watts’ absurdly accented pronunciation of Ithaca] is in Canada.”
Even if Watts entirely botched Cornell’s founding history, his jokes and unique sense of humor regaled the crowd. Wearing a homey blue sweater with tight black slacks, Watts appeared dressed in 70s fashion, sporting a wavy black afro and a deep beard “three years in the making.” His unkempt, eccentric appearance enthralled the audience, who had no doubt heard of his legacy as an unconventional and peculiar performer.
The show was part stand-up comedy, part musical concert. When asked, Watts labeled his performance style as “improvised comedic performance.” He incorporated humorous punch lines with interspersed musical tunes, using various synthesizers and a loop pedal to create different sound collages. Watts would enact a scene, akin to charades, in an effort to transition from one thematic presentation to the next. He interspersed nonsensical electronic noises with unintelligible talking, all blending into one seamless multimedia performance.
Prior to Watts, a funk group named iLL-literacy stormed the stage. The musical trio utilized visual effects and rap to politicize the evening, creating a sharp atmosphere reminiscent to a protest rally. Their political messages delighted the mostly young, left-leaning audience. The group critiqued institutions and persons while addressing the oft-ignored pink elephant in the room, race. “Fuck racist white people in general — and the police,” the musicians cried. In fact, they delighted in the use of the word “fuck” to provoke and poke fun at the FCC’s strict language controls.
“Fuck White Suburbanites who drive black Suburbans,” the group decreed, addressing the glaring paradoxes of American society. iLL-literacy tackled racism, sexism and homophobia, covering unexpected topics at a show advertised as comedy. They intermeshed social critiques with popular culture and a glaring sense of humor. iLL-literacy infused their lyrics with powerful meaning, criticizing both Glenn Beck and the “Che Guevara wearing, post-modernist” hipster. With each political comment, the shouts from the audience grew louder and more militant.
In lieu of contemporary rap’s often alcohol-steeped lyrics, iLL-literacy addressed social inequality, criticizing “fetishized poverty and gentrified tenements.” The musicians pronounced themselves to be an “old-style hip hop,” group. Their musical act could be classified distinctly as rap, a sharp contrast with Watts’ indefinable field.
Watts’ avant-garde musical style defied any genre, bebopping and hip-hopping at random intervals. As Watts broke out in song, his deep tenor voice surpassed all vocal singing ranges. He mixed rap with rock, opera with soul, delving into any and every musical type with an electronic keyboard at hand. A talented musician in his own right, Watts’ claim to fame has been not in music but in comedy.
“In elementary school, I was always making fun of stuff and making kids laugh,” Watts explained in an earlier interview. “I was always getting in trouble for it but I loved seeing people laugh at me.”
During the performance, Watts impersonated various characters, from nasal academics to pompous classical music conductors. His ability to mimic successfully, similar to Robin Williams’ old acts, captivated the audience. Watts engaged in a sort of stream of consciousness with the show, spouting nonsense at times. His random spontaneity overshadowed any coherent and structured performance plan. But Watts delights in the ability to act on a whim and the crowd seemed to agree.
At one point, Watts crawled with his back on the floor — akin to a crab. He wandered around the auditorium, sat down next to an audience member and made outlandish remarks. Watts would face the crowd but appear to be gazing over their heads. Eyes wide-open, Watts stared out, coined new words and continued to tell his hilarious stories.
Watts has appeared on Comedy Central and as an opening act for Conan O’Brien’s traveling comedy tour.
The night’s opening act, iLL-Literacy, comprised of Nico Cary, Dahlak Brathwaite, and Adriel Luis will stay at Cornell for the remainder of the wee, where they will participate in various political and activist conferences sponsored by the African, Latino, Asian and Native American Programming Board and Minority Concert Fund Advisory Board.
Original Author: Max Schindler