I’d say the general reaction I got from people when I announced I was going to see Flobots was 50 percent “Who?” and 50 percent “The Handlebar dudes?” Yes, the dudes responsible for 2008 hit single “Handlebars” dropped into Orpheum in support of their third and most recent release, The Circle in the Square, and I was very interested in how they’d sound four years after releasing that infuriatingly catchy track.
Local prog-hip hop band Samurai Shotgun hit the stage first and impressed the hell out of me. I know lead singer Mateo Prince Henley from the Ybor clubs he’s worked at, and I had no idea he had this in him. When I commented to my friend that one of their songs reminded me of a raw, urban RHCP, he summed it up succinctly with his response: “Yeah, but ten times better, though.”
Next on stage was Minnesota’s insanely surprising Astronautalis. When a pretty blonde boy in a cornflower blue button-down and khakis strode onto the stage to help set up, I assumed he was an intern. Then the lights went down, and he started sing-rhyming over reverb-drenched guitar and cymbals-crashing beats, and I thought, Whoa. Dude’s got flow. The crowd was definitely digging the mix of hip hop and rock, and didn’t hesitate to move closer to the stage at his invitation. He kept brushing his blonde curls away from his face as he bounced from foot to foot and crouched down to make eye contact with the crowd. He referred to himself as a “substitute (teacher) looking motherfucker,” to those of us who weren’t familiar with him before his set started, addressing the whole judging-a-book-by-its-cover thing (which I was guilty of), and then asked for requests on subjects to freestyle on. The two spontaneous freestyle raps that followed touched on the Higgs boson particle, Mitt Romney, the movie Airplane!, Deerwood Country Club in Jacksonville, Stan Lee, and roller derby. Dude is good.
Closing out the night, Flobots entered to a pretty big crowd that clearly knew there was more to the sextet than bike tricks. The first thing I noticed wasn’t the guitarist or bassist, it wasn’t the pair of charismatic rappers who front the band, and it wasn’t the burly guy on drums. It was definitely band’s lone female, Mackenzie Gault, standing stage left with her electric viola. Instrumental touches like this are what make Flobots’ mix of hip hop and rock so special. The energy was high from the moment they opened the set with “Stand Up,” and it didn’t even waver when things got a little rocky.
Midway through the set, it became clear that vocalist Brer Rabbit was having issues with his mic, so without skipping a beat, partner Johnny 5 abandoned the setlist and launched into the rarely performed “By the Time You Get This Message” while the tech guy tried to sort things out. The energy held steady all throughout, and pretty much the only time the two vocalists weren’t bounding around the stage was when Johnny got down on one knee to play melodica. The crowd was on board 100 percent by the time they reached “Handlebars,” and were rewarded with a high-octane performance that didn’t feel like they’d already played it a zillion times. The evening ended with a slow and beautiful rendition of “Rise” along with a huge thanks to the crowd.
As we were on our way out of the venue, a few of my friends remarked that they liked the openers better than Flobots. I’ll admit, it was a pretty close race for me as well. But there are definitely worse things than having to decide which one of the three bands you just heard was the best. All I can say for certain is that I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for future Samurai Shogun shows, and if you’re in Tampa, you should, too. You can catch the rest of the shots from the show here.