By Devon Wendell
Atlanta’s own The Constellations brought Southern fried, hip-hop, soul-infused funk rock to the Spaceland stage on Monday night.
In support of their debut album release Southern Gothic (Virgin Records), the band launched into their set with total bombast on “Setback,” featuring delightfully evil syncopated keyboard work by Jamie Gordon along with Nackers’ thunderous drumming. Front man Elijah Jones jumped in with his pure Atlanta hip-hop MC, funk-inspired vocals and charismatic stage presence, and sexy, hip-shaking background vocalists Alaina Terry and Shab Bashiri added well-punctuated harmonies. It was evident from this first song that the band was intent on keeping a strict rhythm behind Jones, while sticking to the the song’s themes. Amazingly, the song had no guitar solos — unusual and refreshingly original for a rock band.
The Constellations quickly proved to be more than just another rock-based group. On numbers like “Let’s Take A Ride,” “Perfect Day” and “We’re Here To Save The Day,” the group fused Atlanta-based hip-hop, 90’s country rock, and even flashes of ’70’s glam rock. Think Cee-Lo, T-Rex, and The Black Crows crossing the river Styx together with a six pack of beer.
The band’s stage appearance was overtly sexual in a manner that fit the music perfectly with Jones prancing around like a coherent Jim Morrison sporting a modern street look (white undershirt and Kid Rock style winter hat), sensually made up background singers, and enthusiastic instrumentalists who would sing and even dance while playing.
The up-tempo ballad “On My Way Up” was Jones’ most impressive vocal performance; it had a sense of pleading and desperation, and the lyrics spoke of trying to break out of a tightly painted corner. Gordon’s keyboard work was exceptional, with Wes Hoffman’s Bootsy Collinsesque bass thumping carrying the groove. Ryan Davis and Trevor Birdsong’s guitars locked in with the bass and drums and never took flight into overindulgence. Jones got away from rapper mode and sang with a down home, southern feel and the band backed him like a metronome. This was pure grits and gravy soul without flash.
On the dark minor key “Weighing Me Down,” backing vocalists Terry and Bashiri added a melodic hook that sounded like a sampled loop, creating a haunting mood that added to the song’s bleak lyrics about struggling to survive. Jones jumped between rapper and hyper rock crooner.
“Felicia” exemplified the group’s sound more than any of the other chosen material from the set with its sleek, funky, sensual rap-flavored drawl and danceable hooks. This tune brought the listener right into the heart of the late night Atlanta nightclub scene with the entire group singing the song’s chorus in unison. The backing singers swayed to the music and everybody had a blast.
The Constellations closed the set with a unique, hard rock take on Tom Waits’ “Step Right Up.”. This was the weakest point of the show, as the band’s tight structure started to disintegrate into a blaze of noise. Thankfully Jones’ wicked, master-of-ceremonies stage presence held it from falling apart completely as the number changed tempos and finally came to a halt with Nacker’s drums pounding their way into oblivion.
Overall, though, the show was a complete success. The Constellations took too-familiar rap and rock clichés and warped them into something unique – and something that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
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