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It began with a joint salute from the stage to the crowd by Aesop Rock and fellow MC Rob Sonic. It ended with a mass singalong of the words “All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day / Put the pieces back together my way.” In between, I saw my first ever mid-show haircut, when a brave female member of the audience volunteered to have half of her head shaved by a supporting act during an unforgettable performance of “Racing Stripes,” a moment Aesop Rock himself described jokingly as the pinnacle of his career. And this all took place within the confines of El Rey Theatre, a paradoxically opulent venue with large chandeliers and a red velvet motif that was host to a couple of thousand hip-hop fans out for a different kind of Friday night party.

If Aesop Rock’s music can sound intense and claustrophobic on record, his live show was anything but. The coiled up energy in these tracks (mostly taken from new album Skelethon) was released in a performance by the star of the show that was open, physical, and hugely impressive. There was an encouraging and infectious enthusiasm about his performance that reflected the fact that this was the first stop of a national tour, and therefore the first time many of these new songs had been publicly performed. A well-warmed up crowd responded in kind showing their love for the simple but effective stage set-up; as they put it themselves, this was “two MCs and one DJ.”

For me, this kind of show normally takes on a blandly predictable format, with the fellow MC generally doing very little other than shouting over the main act’s rhymes. (Come on, we’ve all been to shows like this.) Fortunately, Aesop Rock showed good judgment in bringing along Rob Sonic, who was a perfect complement and counterpoint to his own performance. On the decks, DJ Big Wiz showed some serious old-school skills in a scratch fest and stepped forward to take centre stage during one interlude, proving that the five minute DJ set is the hip-hop show’s equivalent of the drum solo.

For the most part though, the show was inevitably about Aesop Rock himself. Physically he displayed a tendency for mild contortion that felt like a real reflection of his twisted and mind-warping raps, the likes of which few MCs on the planet are capable of. Backed by a witty visual montage of imagery that similarly reflected the material being performed, Aesop proved himself a master of his craft. As on the new album, “Gopher Guts” provided the one moment of truly brutal introspection, and he suitably performed this solo, standing center stage as he became almost unbearably intimate with his audience.

Despite this, he managed to end the set triumphantly, responding to the demands of the crowd in ending with older favorites “No Regrets” and “Nightlight/Daylight,” which led to the big singalong and remains unequivocal proof that Aesop Rock can knock out a massive anthem if he really feels like it. I sometimes wonder if Aesop can be willfully obscure on record, but the reaction of the crowd at El Rey suggests that his audience has both the patience and the desire to be merrily taken down his unique yellow brick road. He looked happy to lead them.

For more on Aesop Rock and his new album, visit his website.