By Jay Boller
How can a benefit show for a dead 28-year-old render itself not depressive, but inspiring? A tough task, to be sure, but one resoundingly accomplished by the tribute celebration for recently deceased rapper Micheal “Eyedea” Larsen at First Avenue Tuesday night.
“We all know why we’re here,” said Slug, Eyedea’s labelmate/friend and the evening’s MC. “We are here to celebrate the beautiful life of a beautiful person.” The packed crowd at First Ave. – one specked with “R.EYE.P” T-shirts – was in for a crash course in just how many lives were touched by Larsen.
As TVs scrolled baby photos, graffiti tributes and live snapshots of Larsen, a slew of local acts dropped in for mini sets. Among them: Carnage, No Bird Sing, Kristoff Krane and Roma Di Luna.
One of the more emotional moments came via a gut-wrenching acoustic cover of The Flaming Lips' “Do You Realize??” by Alexei and Channy Moon Casselle of Roma Di Luna. “Last time I was with Mikey he picked up a guitar and started playing this song,” a choked-up Alexei said. “I thought it was appropriate in more ways than one.”
Carbon Carousel, Eyedea’s rock band, played just one song, with Glo Pesci of the Abstract Pack manning vocals. Vibes tilted raucous as Abstract Pack tore into some old school hip-hop while break dancing crew Battle Cats performed.
From there Slug introduced Gregory "Max" Keltgen A.K.A. D.J. Abilities – half of Eyedea & Abilities, and Larsen’s best friend. Keltgen was somber yet purposeful as he blared E&A tunes, culminating with a crowd-pleasing spin of “Smile.”
A video screen descended midway through the night with “Sweet Child O’Mine” by Guns N' Roses ushering in family photos of a young Larsen.
The video – one that chronicled his childhood, b-boy days and victory on HBO’s “Blaze Battle” in 2000 – was prepared by his mother, Kathy Averill, who was warmly mentioned throughout the festivities.
The evening’s biggest surprise came when – seemingly inexplicably – anti-folk hero Kimya Dawson took the stage. Dawson and Larsen had only met in passing, Slug explained, but the late rapper was an avid fan. The Moldy Peaches’ star played old favorites and a new song, with the chilling line “People my age are not suppose to die like that” in “Walk Like Thunder” – a song that saw indie hip-hop stalwart Aesop Rock join her onstage – hitting especially home.
Eyedea & Abilities tourmates Themselves energized a drained crowd with a frantically charismatic set that paved the way for Eyedea’s experimental project Face Candy. Slug joined Kristoff Krane onstage during Face Candy and the two shared a spontaneous, deeply moving moment trading verses about their departed friend; they were visibly affected afterward.
At evening’s end, Larsen’s mother took the stage. Flanked by Slug and Keltgen and fighting back tears, she poignantly read a piece her son had written years ago. It was here that the thesis of Larsen’s life emerged, as his mother implored the crowd to do one thing in her son’s memory: “Improve who we are as people.”
Fittingly, a massive freestyle session concluded the famed battle-rapper’s tribute show. With MCs from all walks of Larsen’s life crowding the stage, a cathartic marathon of impromptu verses was spit in his memory.
There was a surplus of tears throughout the night, but boomingly positive vibes and fond memories trumped them all. “This dude pushed everybody he loved to do everything better,” Slug said before exiting the stage alone. It’s a ho-hum cliché to call memorials “celebrations of life,” but Larsen truly packed life into his fleeting 28 years with the same ferocity he packed words into his spit-fire bars.