Can an alternative rock band outdo a popular Atlanta emcee in his hometown? That was the main question this past Labor Day when Utah-based band Neon Trees engaged in a friendly “battle” with Ludacris as a part of Red Bull’s 2011 Soundclash.
The premise of the Soundclash has a Hip-Hop artist/group and rock band reinterpret each other’s most popular tracks between dual stages. The deejay on hand, on this night being the world-renowned Mick Boogie, challenges each artist to adapt their songs to different styles such as reggae, acoustic and metal.
After short intros, it appeared early on that Ludacris may have bitten off more than he could chew even with a live band backing him. The opening “Cover” round called for each group to do renditions of the Michael Jackson classic “P.Y.T.” Luda’s version had solid backing courtesy of his band’s strong rhythm section, and with his raps it came off like a lively go-go song. However, Neon Trees held the advantage by having a frontman that could actually mimic MJ’s cadences. Being that the original also contained notable guitar rhythms, Neon Trees’ cover had a stronger musical backdrop that gave them the advantage after round one.
Neon Trees kept that momentum in the “Takeover” round, which revolved around the original artist starting one of their signature tracks only to have it finished by the other. Neon Trees did a creative, classic rock interpretation of Luda’s “What’s Your Fantasy,” complete with wailing, southern blues-infused vocal inflections from band frontman Tyler Glenn and drummer Elaine Bradley. The latter impressed even further by covering Nicki Minaj’s verse on “My Chick Bad” while maintaining her drum arrangements.
Not to be shown up in his own city, Ludacris came back strong with a lyric-heavy interpretation of Neon Trees’ “1983” single. Displaying the lyrical improvisation that Hip-Hop is known for, Luda fleshed out the 1983 concept by reflecting on his childhood love of music. The DTP leader would do even better in the “Clash” round with a smooth, reggae version of “Pimpin’ All Over the World” and an acoustic, funky reimagining of “Area Codes.”
The last set was called “The Wild Card” round, and featured each artist performing one of their biggest recent hits with a surprise guest. Neon Trees went first with their platinum hit “Animal.” It was quite the spectacle as the band was accompanied on stage by dozens of fans clad in animal masks. The light-hearted song was given a harder edge via Atlanta rap dup Big HEED and ALIen, who chimed in with a call and response verse.
As an ATL resident who keenly knows his audience, it would be Ludacris who made the final impression courtesy of a bevy of voluptuous dancers and strippers from Atlanta’s famous Magic City gentleman’s club. “Everyone knows Atlanta is the strip club capital of the motherfucking world!” Luda affirmed as the music to “How Low” hit. A trio of strippers descended on a pole prop displayed prominently to stage left shortly after Ludacris’ first verse. The first one wowed the crowd with her lively dexterity in navigating the pole with her dark, thick legs and surprising upper body strength. She was followed with two more dancers who elicited an audible pop from the crowd when they used their bodies to create a human surfboard visual. The combination of athleticism and sexuality was more than enough to put a memorable stamp of the competition leg of the evening.
To conclude, Neon Trees joined Ludacris on stage for an unplanned jam session which featured an encore of “Animal.” Afterward, both sides expressed a newfound appreciation for the other’s art form.
“I hope the crowd leaves here tonight feeling like this is the best concert they’ve ever been to,” Ludacris said. “You’re getting both artists at the same time and it shows how many fans just appreciate music, period.”
“The lyrics, especially Luda’s, are more sex and party-driven,” explained Neon Trees frontman Tyler Glenn. “We wanted to be true to the way we write but still be true to the original artist with that swagger and vibe. Usually in a Hip-Hop song there’s so many words, while in a rock song it’s more packaged.”
“What’s cool is that we’re a groove-oriented band amidst rock n’ roll,” added Branden Campbell, who plays bass guitar for the group. “We like to mix a lot of soul elements in there. It was very natural for Elaine and I to get really groovy with rhythms so much that it wasn’t really a departure from his songs. We had fun imitating the music, but we really wanted to do something different. It was real cool and fun.”
Ludacris is at work on his eighth studio album Ludaversal. Neon Trees are currently on tour through October 28.