Concert Review: Kamasi Washington, Palace Theatre, November 1st

It’s a beautiful night for Halloween…

This is how we are greeted, by an opened armed, jovial stranger, as we make our way from the parking garage, onto the street. This is how St. Paul greets its visitors.

It’s not Halloween. It’s November 1st, but this man, whoever he is, who says this to my wife and I as we briskly walk by and say, “It sure is,” and laugh a little at his overall affect—this man is not wrong. I mean, he is wrong about the date. But he’s not wrong about how it is a beautiful night. We are deep into autumn, the days are getting dangerously short, it’s after 8 p.m., and it’s not all that chilly out.

It’s a beautiful night.


The Palace Theatre in Downtown St. Paul has been open for less than three years—originally both a vaudeville house and movie theatre in the early 1900s, the venue was shuttered in the late 1970s, opening briefly to host the (now disgraced) Garrison Keillor radio program, “A Prairie Home Companion,” in the early 1980s.

The building, once at risk of being condemned, was purchased by the city of St. Paul in 2015, and renovated over a nearly two year span of time; the venue itself is co-managed by JAM Productions (a promotions agency based out of Chicago) and the storied concert venue in Minneapolis—First Avenue, a space that, in my opinion, coasts on its history, and name, despite the fact that it is, more or less, a shit hole that attracts the worst kind of clientele.

That ‘worst kind of clientele’ can go to any venue though; you can’t control who else likes the same kind of music that you do—or is willing to pay to go see that artist perform in person. You want a concert to be full of respectful individuals, but that is rarely the case.


Jazz music, at its core, is a genre of music deeply rooted in African American culture, which is why, on a Thursday night in St. Paul, the audience there to see jazz auteur Kamasi Washington, is predominately white—many of whom are probably supporters, or members, of public radio (89.3 The Current did sponsor this show, after all.)

Washington, an artist who is, more or less making jazz ‘cool,’ or at the very least, popular, again, is in town in support of his sophomore album—a sprawling double album (with an additional EP of material hidden in the physical copies of the record), Heaven and Earth, which was released during the summer; it’s an auspicious follow up to an auspicious debut; outside of his now infamous work with Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp A Butterfly, Washington became a figure to watch with his 2015 triple LP, The Epic.

Washington previously performed in the Twin Cities late in 2017, supporting his EP Harmony of Difference, with a show at First Avenue, and returned over the summer as part of the bill for The Current’s annual outdoor festival Rock The Garden.

It was shortly before tickets went on sale for Washington’s show at the Palace Theatre that I said to my wife, “If Kamasi Washington is ever playing some place in the area that isn’t First Ave or an outdoor festival, would you want to go?”


Washington, and his band, members of The West Coast Get Down, played for a blistering 90 minutes, and made it through six songs—when buying tickets, I wasn’t exactly sure how long he would play for, or how many songs the band would perform, but I knew that there was no way I would have the patience or endurance to stand during a jazz concert.

The Palace has a relatively large balcony with seating, which in theory, made for a very conducive place to watch Washington and his band perform; however, when you’re seated, one thing you notice more—or at least I notice more, is how wiggly and restless other audience members who are also seated in the balcony tend to be—either getting up to visit the restroom, or going to buy another over priced plastic cup of Surly beer from the bar, there was a lot of coming and going during Washington’s set, specifically within the final two pieces, as the night pushed beyond 10:30 p.m., and the extended solos from members in the band continued to ring out loudly throughout the old, still run down looking theatre.


The night began on time, apparently, even though we arrived a few minutes after 8 p.m., eventually making our way through security and to our seat while Washington’s tour support, the charismatic Richmond, Virginia-based quintet Butcher Brown performed the first song of their allotted 45 minute set.

At first, I was a little worried about the sound for the entirety of the evening—Butcher Brown’s set—a highly energetic mix of jazz with hard and heavy funk, was loud. Like, really fucking loud. Loud to the point where I was deeply regretting not scrounging around the house to find any ear plugs we may have, or ponying up the $2 for a pair from the coat check at the theatre.

However, we got settled in, and made it through, captivated by the blend of precise musicianship and good humor the members of the band exude—specifically Marcus Tenney, who played both saxophone and trumpet throughout the band’s set; not so much the de facto frontman for Butcher Brown—I believe that may fall onto the shoulders of the band’s founding member and keyboard player, Devonne Harris, or DJ Harrison as he is listed in the credits on the band’s most recent effort, a four song live LP, The Camden Sessions. However, Tenney was the only member to really speak to the crowd in between songs—introducing the other members of the group, giving a gentle reminder about the merchandise they had for sale in the lobby, and repeatedly and excitedly asking the crowd if they were ready for Kamasi—more or less turning into a charming hypeman of sorts.

The musicianship—especially that of guitarist Morgan Burns, and the charisma and charm paid off; during the half hour break between Butcher Brown and Kamasi Washington, I purchased the band’s first physical release—the lengthy 2014 compact disc All Purpose Music, and the just released Camden Sessions on vinyl.

While I am looking at the merchandise they have to offer, the band’s bassist, Andrew Randazzo, makes his way behind the table; he’s seemingly out of breath—literally off stage for, like, five minutes, and already out in the lobby to hustle the group’s wares. He tries to get a Square Up device connected to his phone, all while attempting polite, albeit confusing, conversation with a very obviously intoxicated man standing next to me.

I pay cash for my merchandise; Randazzo thanks me and shakes my hand. “Enjoyed your set,” I tell him, trying to sound cool.

I make my way back up the stairs and find my seat.


Kamasi Washington and six members of The West Coast Get Down unassumingly sauntered onto the stage at 9:15 p.m. sharp—so unassumingly that the house lights were still on, and stayed on well into the band’s first song of the night.

With Washington more or less in center stage, his tenor saxophone slung around his neck, he was joined by Ryan Porter on trombone, Brandon Coleman on keyboards—huddled behind a small fortress of at least four, possibly five different keyboards, all precariously arranged—Miles Mosley, perched up on a riser with his upright bass, Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, Jr., both on drums, stationed on opposite ends of the stage, and vocalist Patrice Quinn.

When you’ve selected only six songs to perform during your 90 minute set, it’s difficult to say that Washington focused on material from a specific release—the group, after a brief welcome from Washington, launched into a jaunty version of “Change of The Guard,” the first track on the first LP of The Epic. Pieces from Heaven and Earth followed—“Testify,” then “The Psalmist,” the latter of which was written by Ryan Porter, and was also included on Porter’s own solo album, The Optimist, released earlier in the year.

The set headed toward its conclusion with “The Secret of Jinsinson,” a track featured on The Choice—the five song EP that is hidden within the packaging of Heaven and Earth. Washington himself had some fun introducing it—“How many of you found the surprise inside?” he asked the audience after inquiring as to how many in the audience had copies of the album. He seemed amused by the fact that many were unaware of this additional disc of material, and encouraged people taking a knife to the top of the center of the record’s packaging to find out what was inside.

The group closed with “Fists of Fury,” the stuttering and energetic opening track to the first LP from Heaven and Earth—here, however, it wasn’t ‘dramatically rearranged,’ but there was something slightly different in the way it felt, and the way it sounded, when compared to what was recorded.

The centerpiece of the night was the surprising inclusion of “Truth,” which probably took up the most time in Washington’s set. Released as a stand alone single in the spring of 2017, the song takes up the entire second side of the Harmony of Difference EP—a sprawling 13-minute opus that, on record, features myriad instrumentation, including electric guitar, additional brass, string arrangements, and an ocean of choral singers.

How does one reconstruct, or in this case, deconstruct such a dense and cacophonic piece, down for just seven people?

That is, more or less, the question that hung over Washington’s entire show. The bombastic and dramatic scope of his recorded work would be almost impossible to economically recreate, night after night, on tour. The truth is Washington is doing the best he can with his small stable of incredibly capable and flat out impressive players—and in doing that, he, perhaps unintentionally, creates a very stark juxtaposition between what he does in the studio, and what he does on stage.

In the studio, under the guise of slick, polished production, and seemingly endless resources and tracks on the board, he creates something that is sweeping and grand, yes, but it’s also devastatingly gorgeous—the string arrangement alone on “Truth” stops me in my tracks every time I hear it.

On stage, however, that slickness and sweeping grandeur is replaced with something raw, visceral, and real. The music is paired down—not skeletal, or smaller in scope—there’s just less instrumentation, and in doing that, Washington has to do the best, and most, with what he’s got, and who he has with him. There may be less instrumentation, but it’s no less impactful.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it always lands 100% of the time.

While singer Patrice Quinn has a haunting, beautiful, and dynamic singing voice—it’s assisted on the recordings with the addition of the low, cavernous rumble from the other lead vocalist in Washington’s band, Dwight Trible. In a live setting, with just Quinn, her voice doesn’t fall flat, per se, but it is missing that counterpart—especially when she’s tasked with carrying the wordless choral singing in pieces like “Change of The Guard” or “Truth.”

Also, as great of a singer as she is, her onstage affect is incredibly distracting—a mix of nervous, anxious energy, and maybe just feeling the music and atmosphere way too much, Quinn, when not singing, spent large portions of the evening doing a strange blend of what seemed like Tai-Chi, mixed with popping and locking, among other things.

The lack of a string section was felt during “Truth” when Brandon Coleman, using a talk box on one of his many keyboards, filled in for the strings by belting out and bending the notes of his voice to wordlessly sing—ambitious and impressive, yes, but for me, it kind of took a little something away from the song’s emotional resonance.

The rest of the material in Washington’s set did just fine in the less polished and more ‘in the moment’ kind of arrangements—“Change of The Guard” at times seemed a little unhinged, like they were fighting against losing control of the song’s frenetic pace; and “Fists of Fury,” a single released from Heaven and Earth, and truthfully, by no means my favorite song on the album, was seemingly given new life as Porter and Washington played their horns in tandem, blasting out the stuttered melody of the song, while a palpable energy came from the rest of the band.


Before launching into “Truth,” Washington explained the concept behind the entire Harmony of Difference EP—a song cycle, if you will, that he said celebrates the differences in people and cultures, rather than simply tolerating them. “Truth,” itself, is five different melodies that become stacked on top of each other—you’d think it would sound like a train wreck, but it never does; sure, it’s a lot to take in, and be very overwhelming, but that’s the point. It forms something larger than itself, making a beautiful and artistic statement.

Jazz music, at its core, is a genre of music deeply rooted in African American culture—it always has been, and as long as there are purveyors of making the genre forward thinking—like Washington, or Porter, or any of their peers who are enjoying this near jazz renaissance.

Jazz’s roots in African American culture is one of the main criticisms of that movie La La Land—Ryan Gosling’s character, depicted as some kind of great white hope for the genre as a movement, and culture, is trying to ‘save jazz’ or keep it pure or something.

But why does jazz music need a white savoir?

This is going to get a little clunky, so in advance, I am sorry, but please try to follow as best you can.

Recently, I read the collection of essays by Hanif Abdurraquib, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us—it’s about a year old now, and I shouldn’t have slept on it for as long as I did, but that’s not what this is about.

The book itself is an awe-inspiring collection that blends Abdurraquib’s life experiences, and the lens he views things through, popular culture (mostly music, sometimes other things), and the current political and racial climate of our world today. I’m sure it takes a tremendous amount of skill to write the way he writes, but he makes it look incredibly effortless.

Near the end of the book, there is an essay about Serena Williams. The conceit of the piece is, more or less, how people want things presented to them in specific contexts—the early example is: It is what is meant when we look at a peaceful protest and hear people say, “Well, why can’t they just do it more peacefully?”

During the intermission at Kamasi Washington’s concert at the Palace Theatre, I passed a young black man on the steps—I was headed down to the lobby to purchase merchandise from the bass player of Butcher Brown, and the young man I passed was headed back up the steps, to his seat, a few rows down from us. In his hand, he cradled, carefully, a plastic cup of tap beer—the bartender had filled it to the brim of the cup, and this young man walked very carefully, trying to spill.

He spilled a little as our paths began to cross. I moved out of the way to clear a better path for him, and he looked up at me and said, “Man, I hate this shit.”

I laughed a little, and continued down the stairs. I don’t know if he meant the steps up to his seat, or the beer being too full, or what.

During Washington’s set, this young man was restless—after the band tore through “Changing of The Guard” at the start of the show, he stood up and cheered, throwing his hand in the air excitedly. Throughout the set, he would occasionally get up—a shadow, awkwardly asking the other shadows sitting next to him if he could get by and get to the aisle. I presumed he was just getting more to drink, or using the bathroom.

Maybe this young man had a few too many drinks and his drunken affect was not appreciated by the white individuals he was sharing a row with in the balcony.

Eventually, a member of the Palace Theatre’s event staff came over and spoke to him—creating not so much a scene, but creating a distraction in our section of the balcony. You don’t want to gawk, or stare, but it’s hard not to, as shadows and bodies are shuffling around in front of you, a few rows down, and you are just trying to watch the show.

After the halfway point of the show, I am fairly confident the white couple sitting nearest to him went to complain to the venue’s event staff—a few minutes after they left their seats, and then returned, another member of the Palace Theatre staff—dressed almost entirely in buffalo plaid. He had a flashlight that he pointed at this young man, and along with the assistance of two other staff members, escorted this man out of the balcony.

He never returned to his seat.

In his essay on Serena Williams, Abdurraquib says: There really is no measurement for how America wants its Black athletes to be. Often times they are asked to both know their greatness and know their place at the same time…When Deion Sanders starts high stepping at the 40-yard line, he’s still dancing. America has always been fine with its Black athletes doing the dance on the field of their choosing, as long as they do the dance off it.

Again, this is clunky, but here’s what I am getting at—the predominately middle class, predominately white audience at a Kamasi Washington concert wants its blackness on stage. This audience will gladly spend the ticket money, money for parking, money on drinks, to see a black performer on stage. This audience will applaud as Washington tells the audience diversity is to be celebrated, not simply tolerated.

But this audience does not want to actually be confronted with blackness—the black skin of a young man who has possibly had too much to drink and is maybe getting restless in his seat.

How is this young man any different from the three individuals who had seats right along the railing of the balcony level?

I watched these individuals—a man, and two women—probably in their late 40s or early 50s. They stood up, dancing in place in front of their seats, arms linked around each other, hands in the air, bouncing in time with the music, sloppily falling and stumbling over each other, laughing.

The difference is these people were white.


In music reviewed I have written, I’ve often used the expression “masturbatory music that fails to climax.” Jazz music is the extreme opposite of that—to an extent it is a scene that celebrates itself, or at least the skill of its performers.

During Washignton’s set, each of the night’s six songs allowed the members of his band to shine with lengthy solos; Washington himself took many, as did Coleman behind his fortress of keyboards. Miles Mosley’s bass solos were incredibly impressive, watching his dexterity along the neck of the bass, then quickly switching and cutting across the strings with a bow.

By far the most astounding solo of the night was from one of the two percussionists—Ronald Bruner, Jr. There’s a reason the band saves his solo until the final song of the night, in “Fists of Fury.” Given a drum break in the middle of the song, I have never seen anyone pound away with such precision and vigor as Bruner does—it makes for a truly show stopping moment.

The Palace, as a venue, is still working through some things—the sound, specifically, has a difficult time in that space. My wife and I saw Ryan Adams perform there at the end of July, 2017; the space had been open for, like, a few months, and I thought that the sound, specifically on the floor, standing very close to the stage, was always on the verge of becoming a huge wall of noise, with few dynamics, and the vocals very easily getting lost.

The very poorly written review of the show that was published on the Pioneer Press’ website called Butcher Brown’s set “an over-amplified cacophony,” and yes, I would agree that their set was loud in the space, but Washington’s was no less noisy—we were told that the acoustics were better in the balcony, and maybe things were a little better mixed as not to always be teetering into that wall of noise territory—though Patrice Quinn’s vocals, especially when she was supposed to be simply providing the wordless choral singing, were almost always drowned out by the overpowering horns or keyboards.

Even with a slightly more even mix, traveling through the balcony, the sound overall is still huge, and intimidating, often thunderously reverberating through the old, cavernous theatre.


It’s a beautiful night for Halloween, a stranger told us on the street in the minutes before waiting in line to get our ID checked, and our stupid 21+ wristband stuck around our wrists, and our tickets scanned; and yes, that man was right—I mean, not about it being Halloween, but it was a beautiful night, and it still was, at, like 11 p.m. when the show was over, and the white crowd was spilling out into the dark night.

Kamasi Washington and The West Side Get Down are an impressive collection of musicians—many of whom have been playing together since childhood. Washington himself is a charismatic bandleader, giving subtle cues to his band mates for when to bring things to a close, or when to keep playing—he also was very affable when addressing the crowd with anecdotes between songs.

On record, Washington’s music is the kind you can just simply get lost in when you are sitting and really listening to it; sure, you can put Heaven and Earth and The Epic in a playlist for dinner party music, and play it quietly in the background, and it works because it’s mostly instrumental—but right now, as I am writing these words, I am nearing the end of the first side, of the second LP, of Heaven and Earth, and it’s very easy to simply close my eyes, and nod my head, and remove my fingers from the keyboard, and let this record take me somewhere.

In a live setting, Washington’s music is not as easy to get lost in. It’s loud as shit, and it’s raw. I think a lot of people in the crowd (me included) did not anticipate the show would be as loud as it was—I saw a number of older members of the audience plugging their ears while they tried to walk down the stairs, or through the aisles. But it’s the kind of music that is very demanding of your attention in a live situation—you’re right there with the band as they play every note like their lives are depending on it.

It’s a beautiful night for Halloween, a stranger told us shortly after 8 p.m. and hours later, as we slid down the ramp leading to the highway and headed back home, watching the young man get ejected from the concert by three members of the venue staff was not sitting well with my wife Wendy, who was the first to point out that, while listening to a black performer play an inherently black form of music, a young black man is asked to leave.

You can go to a concert and really listen; or you can go to a concert, and spend $70+ on tickets and just talk over the music, loudly, and have a conversation with your friend—as the older (and white) man sitting nearest us was doing. You can go to a concert and spend money on drinks and not really pay attention, with the artist in question just becoming background music to soundtrack your evening of over priced tap beer.

You can go to a concert and clap at something because that’s what you are supposed to do—you can applaud Kamasi Washington’s message of the ‘Harmony of Difference,’ but if you are at this concert, and applauding these words and this message and what this man stands for, are you really listening?

For more information on Butcher Brown, visit their Bandcamp; Kamasi Washington's music is available to stream here.