Gangstagrass returned to London as part of a European tour and on their way to a slot at the 2023 Cambridge Folk Festival. The trip seems to have been eventful as they thanked their tour manager for managing to extricate the band from the Czech Republic in order for them to arrive at tonight’s venue in Hackney.
There were two supports the first of which was Gecko, a solo acoustic performer well-used to playing support slots. He cracked jokes with the crowd and kicked out 25% of his audience (of 8) for talking loudly. Highlight of his set was a song lauding the Tamworth Two, the 1998 porcine escapees. Next up we got Henry Grace, also a solo acoustic act but sadly less aggressive than his predecessor which meant he was drowned out by the shouty mob.
Finally Gangstagrass took the stage. The group is a five piece from Brooklyn, New York comprising MCs R-SON The Voice of Reason and Dolio the Sleuth, Dan Whitener on vocals and banjo, Rench on vocals and guitar and Brian Farrow on fiddle and vocals. The band minus R-SON kicked into ‘Freedom’ with Dolio leading before R-SON stepped out from side stage.
Gangstagrass’ basic song structure is a bluegrass(ish) base with the two MCs sometimes separately, sometimes in tandem, laying their rapping over the top. In addition to the musical contrast, the bluegrass vocal and lyric tends to the mournful while the rap sections express defiance and anger.
After ‘Freedom’, the band ran through fan favourites ‘Appalachia Love’, ‘Do Better‘, ‘Ain’t No Crime’ and ‘Nobody Gonna Miss Me’.
The group’s lyrics often address social issues. The introduction to ‘You Can Never Go Home Again’ said it was a song about recidivism but its theme addresses the punitive and unequal nature of the US penal system. ‘Nickel and Dime Blues’ which followed shortly afterwards picks up on monetary and health poverty.
The core band has been together for some years and the ease with which they switch from bluegrass to hip hop and back is seriously impressive. R-Son and Dolio had the crowd, two of who we learned had flown in from Spain for the show, bouncing and caught up in call and response as Gangstagrass roared through ‘Ante Up’ and ‘What I Am’.
An encore was assured and the band came back with a fine version of ‘Bound To Ride’ leaving a happy and energised crowd to file out into the East London night.