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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wiz Khalifa @ Harley-Davidson Roadhouse, Summerfest

July 5, 2011

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Soaring into the limelight on the strength of his early mix-tapes and the infectious hometown anthem "Black & Yellow," the Pittsburgh based Wiz Khalifa has become something of an unstoppable force in the rap world. This is interesting, since his Atlantic Records debut, Rolling Papers, despite being perfectly timed to capitalize on his growing buzz, is hardly a masterpiece. Solid throughout, sure, full of earworm pop hooks and competent rhymes about girls and partying with the jet set (you know, the usual), but it doesn't really have anything new to say, or for that matter, say anything old with much impact. But music journalist quibbling is irrelevant here (and isn't it always?), the people have spoken, demonstrated by the mind-boggling number of fans crammed in front of the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse last night.

An agoraphobic's nightmare, and justifiably disconcerting to the level-headed, the crowd was significantly larger than anything I've ever experienced at a Summerfest free stage. In those rare moments when people weren't shoving past you from every direction, though, you could catch a glimpse of the personality that has made Khalifa such a phenomenon. Animated, wiry and heavily tattooed, he's a pleasure to watch, lending character and spark to songs that can often seem rather banal on record (i.e. much of Rolling Papers). But again, it's hard to pay attention, and doubly hard to become invested, when trapped in an undulating sea of people.

But at some point—more specifically, as soon as you entered the swarm—being able to enjoy a show in relative comfort becomes the least of your worries. I don't know how many thousands were packed between the stage and the lake, but it was certainly enough to become dangerous. Fortunately, 99% of the horde was made up of nice people just trying to have a good time, but in such an environment, that troublesome 1% can cause real havoc. Thankfully, the handful of fights that broke out fizzled quickly, but if, God forbid, there was more serious violence or some kind of structural collapse, the panic would have been catastrophic. I'm unaware of the Big Gig's protocol when it comes to these kinds of crowds, but when the only visible authority is a pimply-faced teen in a blue polo, your confidence in the promoters more or less evaporates. As a music fan, you can't help but remember the tragic trampling deaths of 11 fans at a Cincinnati concert by The Who in 1979, or the chaos that erupted at Woodstock '99, and though this night ended okay, hopefully the Summerfest administrators are taking a good long look at their crowd-control policy. Khalifa put on a good show, but was it worth all the hassle and risk? Not by a long shot.
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