“It’s a good night for rap music,” said Pink Navel at the beginning of their set Thursday night at Space Ballroom. Anyone who was at the show would probably call that an understatement as four acts — Old Self, Pink Navel, Ceschi, and Open Mike Eagle — gave a master class in how to command an audience while also performing with friends and having a fantastic time themselves.
The venue was buzzing from moment one as the venerable DJ Mo Niklz brought a dazzling array of ’80s and ’90s rap and hip hop to the speakers as well as the big screen in the form of videos. That screen was also used as part of the first act’s set, New Haven’s own Old Self (a.k.a. Brian Springsteen), who played his own videos of his songs as he performed each one along with Niklz.
“Make noise for Mo Niklz, the pickle king of Connecticut,” Springsteen said, referring to Niklz’ other creative endeavor. At one point during the set he even pulled out one of the pickles and ate it while Niklz smiled and provided a musically apropos pickle-based interlude.
Springsteen’s trademark humor shone through on songs that also showed tenderness, like the opener “Nostalgia” with the lyrics “we’re living in the past because the present and the future hurt like assembling IKEA furniture.”
Asking the crowd to take two steps forward, he continued on with songs like “Word Art,” “Relationship Fat,” and a new one called “Old Self with a Dollar Sign” that he got the audience to join in on at the “with a dollar sign” part.
Nostalgia came again in the form of a Milford Amusement Center commercial on the big screen between the songs “What’s My Age (Again)” and “Smart Phone,” where he sang, “any room’s a stadium, I pray it means something.” The response to it all from the audience felt like the room could be a stadium.
He ended with “Sunday Scaries,” but not before asking the crowd who had to work tomorrow and then telling them, “make some noise if you have to work tomorrow.” He then thanked them for “coming out on a school night. This one is for us.”
Pink Navel then came to the stage smiling and offering a fresh and funky set of music that referenced everything from pop culture fictional characters to role playing games. They thanked their good friends Ceschi and Open Mike Eagle, who they called a “great rapper. It’s been great to tour with him.”
After performing a song about Magic the Gathering and one about beer, they asked the audience to shout out their names all at once.
“Now that we’re friends can I play the sad stuff?” they asked. They then added songs in from their latest album “How to Capture Playful,” a collaboration with Kenny Segal that the crowd cheered on. The response to it all was near deafening, and Pink Navel’s soulful connection to the room became complete.
Ceschi, who was also joined by Mo Niklz, turned up the energy from the get go for his impactive and explosive set that offered his latest single “Beginning of a New Era,” that he opened with a verse from The Codefendants song “Disaster Scene.” In true Ceschi fashion the crowd knew the words already and sang along. Friends came and went the whole set, as he was joined onstage by his brother David Ramos on cajon for “Bite Through Stone.” Toward the end of that song, Max Heath (who also produced songs on Open Mike Eagle’s latest album) made his way up to play keys. They would also join Ceschi later, David on another song from 2015’s Broken Bone Ballads album, “Kurzweil,” that also saw old friend Mic King invited onstage as well as Sketch tha Cataclysm. The combination of camaraderie and energy the four created made it a highlight of the set, David rolling in and out of the crowd as they sang and cheered him on and King singing the praises of his friend Ceschi.
“This guy is a force of nature,” he said before the song began. “We’ve been making music almost 30 years and it started in Hamden.”
Ceschi also mentioned local shows from way back with Old Self, King, and Open Mike also mentioning how proud he was of his friend Dev (a.k.a. Pink Navel) saying he has seen them “kill it this year.”
The singing along never ceased with songs like “Consider it a Win,” “Long Shot,” and “Love Song for the Apocalypse,” which saw Ceschi handing the mic to friend and performer Myles Bullen in the audience to sing the final lines.
He went into the audience and sat down, the crowd following his lead, and spoke more of how he and Mike had played together in the front room of the ballroom when it used to be the Outer Space, before leading into Ceschi singalongs “Say Something” and “Forever 33/This Won’t Last Forever,” with David and Max joining in once again. It became yet another Ceschi show for the books, full of fire and beauty and friendship, not only with other performers but with the entire audience. He was beyond appreciative, thanking everyone multiple times and speaking of his joy in seeing “so many beautiful and familiar faces in this room” during the end of the final song.
“Stay strong, Connecticut,” he added, as the crowd’s singing of the lyrics “Oh My God” reverberated around him.
Open Mike Eagle shouted out Connecticut multiple times himself and also reminisced about shows he and Ceschi had played in the front room. Last here in 2018, he has added multiple albums to his resume since then, the crowd singing along to those newer songs as well as older favorites such as “(How Could Anybody) Feel At Home” from 2017’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream.
A comedian as well as a rapper, Eagle proved adept at marrying humor with poignancy in his interactions with the crowd as well as his lyrics.
“Now that we’ve gotten to know each other, this song is about what to do with my body after I die,” he told the audience before the song “A New Rap Festival Called Falling Loud” from his latest album Another Triumph of Ghetto Engineering, where he sang “mix up my ashes into some coffee grounds.”
He also shouted out “a bunch of people that I love” in another song, including Ceschi and Mo Niklz.
“It means a lot to me to do that in their own home,” he added.
He also added a song about his favorite MC of all time, MF Doom, called “For Doom.” After that he told the crowd that finally after all of these years he realized what his genre was — “trauma bops” — and then finished up the set with “Death Parade,” “Bucciarati,” and “95 Radios,” in between telling the audience they “make noise so beautifully” as they sang and cheered along. It was a wonder any of them had any voices left after the vigor with which they joined in with the first three acts, but if anything, they almost seemed to get louder and more vibrant with each one.
After he freestyled his way through part of “95 Radios,” he said “people in Connecticut are oh so cool,” and thanked them for their “beautiful, lovely, amazing energy.” The feeling was quite obviously mutual.
“The first time I played here was in that little room, and I know most of y’all weren’t there, so I’m glad you were here tonight,” he said.