The first time I saw Astronautalis, I was well underage. I had to get to the venue — a dive bar on Second Street in Reno, Nev. next to the Triumph tattoo parlor — early enough to talk my way past the bouncer guarding the front door, and then I tried to stand inconspicuously off to the side until the show started.
To this day, that concert remains one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen, and one of the few that has completely blown me away, changed everything. I went home and downloaded the first two Astronautalis albums, knowing that I would be going to see him perform as long as he was willing to play.
On March 22, Astronautalis headlined at the Satellite on Silver Lake Boulevard alongside Playdough, Transit and the Dead Men.
Quite a lot of time has passed since my initial introduction to his music, and a lot has changed. But a lot has not. Astronautalis started as a one-man act with only his laptop full of beats and his own manic energy to accompany him onstage. He’s now backed by a guitarist and drummer. He’s grown a beard. But he’s still effortlessly charming. His music is still a high-energy, lyrically-challenging combination of hip-hop, talkin’ blues and indie rock. A live Astronautalis show is still a vivid experience to be had, and I’m still here.
I valiantly suffered through the abysmal opening acts preceding the Astronautalis set, and to say they were abysmal is not at all an exaggeration. The first group, LA transplants calling themselves the Dead Men, had some good instrumentalists (a harmonica player and keyboardist, in particular), but the songs were so badly written it was almost funny to hear them singing the praises of “Orthodox Jew porn” and violently hurting women. Almost funny.
I hoped the evening would improve when Canadian rapper Transit took to the stage next, but it did not. I remember that he is Canadian because he told the same joke about “sweating maple syrup” roughly 146 times, whenever he wasn’t trying to name-drop someone successful he had once interacted with, including Gene Simmons, who he allegedly turned down for a record deal, opting instead to maintain his artistic integrity and sell CDs in the back room of the Satellite for five dollars. As for his artistic integrity: well, he sang an entire song called “Friend Zone” about a woman who (for some reason) valued his company, but it still pissed him off that she wouldn’t sleep with him.
The final opener, Playdough, had the best stage presence of the three, and being able to command a room is like 60 percent of the battle. Some of his set was amusing, but most of it was pedestrian. He gave an excessively long speech about how great he is at freestyle and how much he loves to do it. Despite the grandiose build-up, his delivery was amateurish. Think “Fox in Socks,” only not as clever.
And, finally, Astronautalis came onstage, sipping whiskey and wearing neatly cuffed jeans over black combat boots. He is so uniquely talented that he easily and consistently blows away his opening acts; he also far outperforms his own band. The fast-moving set included many tracks from his most recent full-length release, 2011’s “This is Our Science,” including “Thomas Jefferson” and “Contrails.”
Astronautalis — a Minnesota native — told the crowd how he made the most of his afternoon in Silver Lake with a picnic and some kite-flying in the balmy spring weather before launching into “Midday Moon.” Through a smirk, he sang the song’s second verse: “It was a windy day, / The kind that makes me hate LA / ‘Cause God gave them a perfect sun, and they think gangs and smog were hardly a fair trade.”
Highlights from Astronautalis’ live set included a few new takes on some of his best-known songs, including a remix of “Dimitri Mendeleev” that he describes as less aggro and more dance-y than the original, as well as an up-tempo, rock-driven reboot of “The Trouble Hunters.” “The Trouble Hunters,” a rousing fight song about the Battle of Trenton, is always a climactic moment at Astronautalis shows, and the song is so great that it deserves to be a huge hit, if we lived in the kind of society that allowed for songs about the American Revolutionary War to top the Billboard charts.
Additionally, the band played a few new songs that are being readied for the next album release, and to my delight, they included “This City Ain’t Just a Skyline,” a previously-unreleased outtake from “This is Our Science.” The track was uploaded to SoundCloud on Feb. 22, and its melodic synth beats against Astronautalis’ jaunty vocals immediately cemented it as one of my favorite new singles of 2014.
One of the staples of an Astronautalis set is his freestyle segment, during which he takes topic suggestions from the audience (can’t be anything he’s ever rapped about before, i.e. nothing about US history) and combines them into one epic impromptu song. The difference between Playdough’s freestyle and Astronautalis’ is stark: Astronautalis doesn’t go on about it, but instead brings an unparalleled frame of reference and incomparably sharp wit in order to deliver a memorable, one-of-a-kind freestyle that speaks for itself.
The most fun topics are those provided by the drunks who have no idea what’s going on but really enjoy shouting, rather than the premeditated topics prepared by the hipsters trying to look smart (the guy who suggested the international rules governing the conduct of submarine warfare as a freestyle topic, I’m looking at you). Back in Reno all those years ago, I remember a wayward frat boy slurring his suggestion of “T-Shirt on Your Head Tuesdays,” and then I remember watching with stars in my eyes as Astronautalis actually rapped eloquently and hilariously about whatever the hell that means.
And that’s the amazing thing about Astronautalis’ live performances: each one is so distinctive. I feel like I always learn something valuable at an Astronautalis concert, in the sense that hanging around truly interesting people makes you want to better yourself. Can’t say that about too many musicians, can you?