Kids These Days Tears Up ’Sco, Samples Best of Every Genre

Julian Ring, Staff Writer

Ever since Rage Against the Machine and Faith No More folded in the late ’90s, rap-rock has fallen on hard times. Up-and-coming Chicago outfit Kids These Days aims to change that. With a small horn section and a no-holds-barred emcee, the seven-piece band is less Limp Bizkit and more Pharrell Williams brainchild, yet Kids These Days adds a dash of hardcore and blues that makes genre-stamping all but impossible. They’re fresh off an exhausting fall tour behind their full-length debut — produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy — and are preparing for a slot at this year’s Coachella, but the group showed no signs of fatigue during their gig at the ’Sco last Saturday night.

If one thing can be said for sure about the band, it’s that rapper Vic Mensa pilots their musical machine from a lofty captain’s chair. He guided the band through the heaviest cuts from their latest release, Traphouse Rock, with an overload of hip-hop swagger. With keyboardist and singer Macie Stewart plunking the riff to “Doo-Wah,” Mensa got everyone’s hands in the air — not for the first or last time — spitting verses about fame and failure to a gleeful crowd. The intensity only elevated from there. The nü-metal freakout “Don’t Harsh My Mellow” saw guitarist and vocalist Liam Cunningham letting loose with manic fretwork over a shout-along refrain: “Shut the f* up!” By the last song, the ode to ganja “Bud Billiken,” Mensa and his group had it in the bag — no pun intended — as he swung from the rafters.

Kids These Days’s brass duo, specifically their penchant for borrowing melodies from the greats, might make more traditional composers fume. One tune cherry-picked horn lines from across Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, albeit in slowed-down renditions. Sewn into the ’70s funk and soul of their earlier material, from a 2011 self-released EP titled Hard Times, they worked surprisingly well. Thumbs up to a live band that keeps the original spirit of hip-hop — and its lifeblood, sampling — alive. Besides, “Isn’t She Lovely” never sounded as good as it does over a fat beat.

Welcome breaks in the set allowed KTD to showcase their chops. Stewart handled lead vocals on a smoking ballad and, just as the audience was going nuts, topped it off with a Hammond organ solo. Cunningham’s defining moment came on “Wasting Time.” “Hope I haven’t wasted all these years / Maybe I’m just a waste of time,” he roared beneath subdued chords that built to a frenzy. Short but sweet solos from the rhythm section dispelled all remaining doubts. These guys can play.

They may be at the bottom of the star-studded Coachella lineup this summer, but make no mistake: Kids These Days are at the top of their game. They’ve honed a sound that waltzes across the American musical palette while bringing a vitality to their show that is rare in larger acts. A must-see for festival-goers and sonic thrill seekers.