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Often perceived as an isolated part of the city, the west side of Chicago has primarily relied on its artists to share the stories with those outside their blocks. This past Saturday, November 25th more than 1300 people congregated inside the House of Blues to see the “hottest boy band from out west” (and arguably the world) share their own stories for the first annual John Walt Day. Billed as a celebration of the late rapper’s life and a concert benefiting the foundation his family began shortly after his tragic death, positive vibes were palpable from the very start as each member of Pivot Gang performed in front of a sell-out crowd that permeated love throughout both floors.

Frsh Waters’ opened the festivities with a strong set, surprising many with his cool composure in his first show since being back home. Smack took advantage of his unannounced gig to premiere a posthumous Walt banger/collab before Mfn Melo went up on stage and ran through a handful of standout cuts from his excellent Melodramatics ‘tape. Later on, Joseph Chilliams welcomed everybody to the Henry Church doctrine with “fuck Bow Wow” call-backs and a popping crop top that should earn him an invitation to next year’s Met Gala. It’s also worth noting that damn near the whole city popped-out as Jamila Woods, Jean Deaux, Smino and Xavier Holiday all hopped on stage while many others were in attendance.

Within the past 10 months, Pivot Gang hit rock bottom after the passing of Walt but also reached unprecedented highs as Chlliams and Melo released their respective debut projects, Frsh Waters was freed and Saba more than doubled his attendance record for a headlining show. The latter capped off the evening with a powerful, emotionally-driven set dedicated to his cousin who used to own a cutlass and was probably looking down, smiling because he knew where they’d been and gone to get a thousand voices singing along to “World In My Hands.”

It’s likely that Saba has already been offered several major label deals and turned all of the down. He’s adamant about relying solely on himself and his team, even if that means clocking in extra hours with little to no rest. Case in point, fresh off his first headlining European tour and leading up to this show, Saba personally delivered tickets to fans all over the city and across college campuses in a gesture that fostered an even stronger bond with his following and reminiscent of the grassroots movement Kids These Days sparked in 2011 when they sold tickets and merchandise outside local High Schools.

Since the release of Bucket List Project, Sab’s output has reflected a strong advocacy for sovereignty with a couple of collaborations clearly indicating his intentions and thought process behind his actions.

“360” is a frank, pensive takedown of the infamous business deal that many major labels impose on their artists. The dangers of having an album shelved, losing one’s identity and the false sense of affluence are vividly present in Saba’s mind here. Produced by Zack Villere, a multifaceted artist from Covington, Louisiana who dropped one of my favorite albums of the year in Little Word, I can’t say that this record wouldn’t have happened if either of them were in a label, but it says a lot that the two had the ability to make their own choices.

Unfortunately, he didn’t play “360” at the House of Blues but he did treat the audience to new music, including “There You Go,” an August release that celebrates progression with a tender shoutout to Walt at the end. Saba has a lot of fun performing this one as witnessed live and on his Colors feature seen below. Then again, how could he not? Over a jazzy instrumental, he swiftly does the impossible “out of the seemingly simple” with ease.

In a tumultuous 2017, the House of Blues felt like a shelter where singing along and smiling served as healing tools and a fitting remembrance of Walt. All the revenue generated from ticket sales went directly to the foundation, a selfless act by Pivot Gang that mirrors their constant demeanor and a huge reason why the night felt so magical.

As the event came to a close and Sab left the stage, the downtown venue became vehemently loud with pleads for one last chance to jump around. As the chants roared, Saba came back alongside Chilliams and the rest of Pivot for a raucous encore rendition of “Westside Bound 3” and the promise of coming back next year with more stories to tell.

 

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