Riley delivered his message with fevered intensity, rapidly pogoing and giving sweaty -- and often silly -- half-true speeches.
Despite the recent presidential election cycle, the funk-rap blasting I received last night at the Majestic Theatre last night may be the most political 90 minutes I've had this year. That's to be expected of the evening's headliner.
The Coup might be, at this point, the best funk band on the planet, but first and foremost, it is a soapbox for frontman Boots Riley to decry the social ills of America. Whether that's questioning the American educational system ("Strange Arithmetic") or the importance of standing up for what is right ("Ass Breath Killers"), Riley delivered his message with fevered intensity to a receptive crowd last night, rapidly pogoing and giving sweaty - and often silly -- half-true speeches (he claimed at one point that Harriet Tubman used to sing Party Music's "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO" on the Underground Railroad). That made the show alternately like going to a street rally, a great roadhouse, a poetry reading and a party in Rick James' front parlor, depending on the minute. Which is to say it was everything you expect from a Coup show in 2012: a mixture of all the things that the band has done in its 20 years.
In town promoting this year's great Sorry to Bother You, the Coup showed off their smoother full-band sound by performing most of the album. While they used to be a rap group that liked funky beats, they have evolved into a Parliament-Funkadelic-inspired funk band that happens to have a rapper as the frontman. Riley led the band through riotous takes of "The Magic Clap," "You Are Not a Riot" and "The Guillotine," with the early-set highlight "Strange Arithmetic" launching what was likely the first-ever dance party dedicated to ending the oppression of Home Ec teachers.
The full band took older material in new directions, too. "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night," from 1998's Steal This Album, was spacier and harder edged, while "We Are the Ones," from 2006's Pick a Bigger Weapon, was recast as a hardcore punk song. The biggest surprise, though, was a version of Genocide and Juice's "Fat Cats and Bigga Fish" that featured solos for all the band members: organist, guitarist, bassist and drummer. Searing guitar solos and jams that end in the bass player doing a handstand aren't exactly the first things you'd expect at a rap show.
Until Monday, I thought the old line about the Coup, that they "don't forget to dance" in between the polemics, was a cliché meant to excuse critics from having to engage with the sometimes-difficult politics of the group. But it turns out that cliché is totally true. I haven't been to a show with more dancing this year.
But Riley still took ample time to deliver impassioned speeches in between all the boogieing. After saying that he knows it's hard to hear exactly what he's saying while his band is fired up, he summed up the philosophy of the Coup when it was quiet.
"I really believe in one thing: People should democratically control the wealth they create. We try to do it through music because we don't want to get a real job," Riley said to the cheering crowd. "I also believe the best way to engage with the world is to try to change the world."
For 90 minutes, he had a Madison crowd believing he might be able to do just that.