Buck 65 at Opera House

February 4, 2003. Cabaret Music Hall, Montreal, Quebec.

The room is dark, save a few stage lights in the usual hues. A shaggy-haired, newscap-wearin' boy-next-door type is onstage. He looks uncomfortable. His hands are wrapped tight around the microphone, his grip nervous and tense, as if his courage to be there is derived from the apparatus; his one ally among a sea of strange faces.

The audience stares at him. His deep, molten eyes stare earnestly back, holding our gaze. Shy, but hard; uneasy, yet unflinching. He turns to the decks sitting to his right, drops the needle and the speakers release the intermittent hum of synth chords. Slow, fragile, constant. A simple hip hop rhythm creeps in shortly thereafter. He turns back to face us. We continue staring. Waiting. Expecting.

The beat drops. His gruff voice starts and, the second it does, all shyness dissipates. "I was raised on a dirt road / ghost town, stray dogs..." It's a strong voice, one that commands attention. We listen. Curious. Intrigued.

Some four-odd minutes later, the closing notes are fading away. The rendition of "Stella" we just witnessed, haunting and heart-wrenching in equal measure, is soon to be but a memory. We panic. The gruff voice soothes us, "She tried to hide the scars / Her name reminds me of the stars / I saw diamonds divide / In the corners of her eyes." We are won over. Still mesmerized. Smitten. Hooked.

Cut to Friday, June 30, 2006. The Opera House, Toronto, Ontario.

The man onstage sports a navy polo shirt, collar popped, no less. Gone is the ratty newscap and in its place is a haircut you'd expect from a stylist--stylist, not barber--named Noir. Gone is the endearingly awkward rapper from Mt. Uniacke, Nova Scotia (population 3,500), and in his place is a polished performer who calls Paris' posh sixth arrondissement home (think poodles named Fifi and des Jardins du Luxembourg).

My, how things have changed. It's hard to believe that this is the same Buck 65 I used to know. The Buck (nee Richard Terfry) that used to rhyme as Johnny Rockwell or Jesus Murphy or Uncle Climax, or any of the monikers he assumed back in the devil-may-care days. The one that put out "Stolen Bass 7'" under Stinkin' Rich in '95. Or "To Mock a Killingbird" in '97. But, hell, never mind feels like he's done a complete 360 even in the past three years. Then again, it's been one hell of a three-year ride in the life of Mr. 65. With two Junos under his belt now and a new blushing bride, this Buck's got a bit more pep to his step. His trademark smokey mesquite pipes remain but, beyond that, he's near unrecognizable from his Sebutones days (that'd be the late-90s duo comprised of him and Sixtoo).

In town as part of the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival, Buck did his song and dance routine to an appreciate crowd last Friday at the Opera House. (Routine, not performance. Appreciative, not adoring. I repeat: my, how things have changed.) Much of the set was off 2005's Secret House Against the World. For me, "Roses and Bluejays" off Talkin' Honky Blues (2003) was the highlight and even that; well, let's put it this way: it was--gulp--err, "well executed".

What has become of our beloved Buck, I don't know. I don't see the fire anymore. Sure, the new releases are more polished, but the trade-off seems to be the raw, uncensored wordsmithing that captivated and thrilled. The obtuse, fantastical stories and leftfield rhymes have been replaced by imitations that reek of stilted attempts to find the "perfect formula," that cursed chimera that has been the ruin of too many a fine artist.

I realize it's neither fair nor realistic to wish a musician remains quiescent; but, damn, I hope Buck's newfound direction is a temporary, misguided detour. Though, what with him trashing his own back catalogue recently, it looks like the Buck 65 many of us knew and loved is gone. What a shame.

To be fair, this Buck seems a lot more comfortable in his own skin. He's in a good place, and it shows. Onstage, he beams. In between tracks, he does little jigs. He dances now. There's less scripted material and tall tales from the road, and more casual audience chit chat. When wife and collaborator Claire Berest comes onstage for two duets, the chemistry and claw-at-each-other interplay between them tempts me in my naughty place down there. So, yeah, I'm glad he's happy; but, at the end of the day, I'm not sold on this new-and-improved, shiny, flashy Buck.

Towards the end of the night, in the middle of a song, Buck knelt down, seized my hand in a frenzy and planted it right above his heart. "Feel this," he panted breathlessly, before popping back up again and finishing off the set.

I felt it alright, Rich. It's there. Beating fast and furious. I just hope you are staying true to it.

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