The Beast + Big Band
Motorco Music Hall
June 6, 2012

The Beast is, without doubt, one of the strongest live acts in North Carolina. In this particular case, I’m not talking about instrumental chops or songwriting wit, although the Durham hip-hop-and-jazz four-piece has more than its fair share of both. Right now, I’m referring to heavy lifting, the ability to take on additional sonic weight and keep right on trucking. It was that strength that made the band’s opening set for Duke Performances’ annual Music in the Gardens series (relocated to Motorco due to threat of inclement weather) so thrilling.

Seizing the opportunity presented by the additional budget and exposure, The Beast expanded into a 12-piece mini-orchestra, filling out their energetic sound with strings, horns, guitar and additional percussion. Amazingly, the added heft didn’t slow the typically light and lively outfit. Bolstered by the orchestra’s swells, the band’s slyly sensual rhythms took hold more easily, allowing them to stretch out without forsaking momentum.

Much of this success had to do with the skill of The Beast’s reinforcements, an impressive bunch that included a N.C. Symphony member as well as regulars from the outsized salsa outfit Orquesta GarDel. One highlight was a freestyle piece that united the concept of off-the-dome rapping with improvisational soloing. Pierce Freelon’s verse was a touch clumsy but nevertheless charming as he traced personal connections between himself, The Beast and the big band surrounding them. The jaw-dropping solos overshadowed any weakness and proved Freelon’s points. Indeed, it was hard to think anything but happy thoughts as Al Strong’s piercing trumpet lines dazzled the senses.

Eric Hirsh leading the charge

But what truly won the night was The Beast’s fiery passion, which burned brighter thanks to the extra accompaniment. No moment proved this better than the ensemble’s upgrade of the solidarity-endorsing “My People.” Freelon began the song with a simple, soft-spoken message about North Carolina’s anti-gay marriage Amendment One: “Let’s repeal it.” Strings and horns filled in the spaces left within Eric Hirsh’s tinkling piano lines as Freelon worked himself into a fervor, jumping up and down, fist-pumping and screaming, “Fuck Amendment One!”

As performers, the four guys that make up The Beast are a conduit, transmitting incredible energy to their audience. On Wednesday, their role wasn’t really different. They simply utilized the added players as another power source, growing their intensity to match the ensemble’s exaggerated sound. The results were organic and overwhelming, more the work of a practiced touring outfit than a one-off collaboration. Here’s hoping the night’s success inspires The Beast to bulk up more often.