He may not yet be a household name, but Gotham rapper Mos Def (host of HBO’s “Def Poetry”) is clearly one of the most talented and versatile performers in contemporary hip-hop. The rock-based Black Jack Johnson Project, his latest musical endeavor, features an amazing lineup of musicians and may prove to be Mos Def’s crowning achievement, following his well-received 1999 album “Black on Both Sides” and his later “Black Star” project with Talib Kweli.
For now, this rookie group (which debuted locally last summer at the Coachella festival) is very much an unrefined work in progress, as witnessed Friday at the House of Blues. But make no mistake, the potential for greatness here is quite high.
Talent-heavy band, named for the controversial early-20th-century boxer Jack Johnson, features guitarist Dr. Know from veteran reggae-punk crew Bad Brains, keyboard player Bernie Worrell from Parliament/Funkadelic and bassist Doug Wimbish and drummer Will Calhoun from funk-rock band Living Colour. Mos Def, going against form, sings (baritone) in BJJP songs much more than he raps.
The 80-minute show boasted a wide array of styles and moods, including reggae, hard rock, blues, punk and R&B, with some original songs and some covers.
Yet it all felt very haphazard and informal, sometimes even bordering on bland, as if the arrangements hadn’t been given the proper rehearsal or exploration. (It is hard to imagine these five musicians can schedule many practices.)
The group’s own “War” was presented in two versions, one an a capella effort from Mos Def that he intro’d by saying, “I wrote this song three years ago, before the Bin Laden fiasco and Fox News and John Ashcroft,” making clear his disdain for those who would appear to profit from armed conflict. “I’m a soldier biding my time,” he intoned. The rest of the band then came back for a steamy funk-rock version of “War,” featuring blood-red lights bouncing off the walls and ceiling.
A short take on Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” was another highlight, as was “Rapeover,” sung to the tune of Jay-Z’s “Takeover” and dedicated to the record industry. The crowd, which was lively and dancing when the show started, was beginning to look pretty bored as the band played “Blackman” to the tune of the “Batman” theme, after which the players all got their own moment in the sun. Show ended (sans encore) with a final blistering Dr. Know solo.