We were sixty minutes into Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's Friday night set at Yoshi's San Francisco, and they'd yet to smoke a single blunt, joint, bowl, or bong onstage. Were we at the wrong show? Or maybe they'd cleaned up their act. Maybe the reunited band (four-fifths of it, at least), on the verge of celebrating its twentieth anniversary, had decided to go squeaky-clean harmony and not streets-of-Cleveland thug during its 36-city victory lap. But wait: Hadn't the opening act featured someone singing "Smokin' Weed Again," flat and off-key, to the tune of War's "Why Can't We Be Friends?" Hadn't someone tossed a huge joint onstage from the back of the dance floor earlier in the night? And wasn't this the group that wrote stoner classics like "Smoke Weed and Maintain," "Blaze It," and the succinctly titled "Weed Song"?
So why hadn't Krayzie Bone, Layzie Bone, Wish Bone, and Flesh-n-Bone partaken when they sang "Bud Smokers Only" earlier in the evening? Flesh-n-Bone — who's been in and out of jail (mostly in) since 2000 — had introduced it by asking where his weed smokers were at, in so many words. The band had sent it out with the poetic line take a hit of the reefer keep smokin', sung in unison in a staccato rhythm. But no reefer. Finally, it happened. "Y'all wanna get high with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony?" asked Layzie, the night's de facto emcee and Flesh-n-Bone's younger brother. It seemed we did. The band launched into "Buddha Lovaz." The lights went down. The blunt appeared, and was passed from Wish (affable and upbeat) to Krayzie (drinking beer from cans all night long, quietly lingering toward the back of the stage) to Layzie to Flesh-n-Bone. It was a Bone Thugs reunion. All was right with the world.
Granted, the whole production wasn't as much of a novelty as most of us wanted it to be. The four Bones have been touring steadily since early 2010, including a 36-city club tour last spring and another 35 shows in the fall. In 2011 the gigs have been a bit more sporadic, but the group did manage to squeeze in eleven sold-out shows in Australia. By now the new arrangement must be old hat. So too is the seemingly incongruous fact that a Nineties hip-hop act is playing Yoshi's in the first place: The sister location of the revered Oakland jazz spot hosted Public Enemy in January and welcomes Naughty By Nature, Doug E. Fresh, and De La Soul in the coming weeks.
But there comes a time when one must stop worrying about whether a Grammy Award-winning gangsta-rap act from Ohio is or isn't smoking weed in a San Francisco jazz club. We were there to listen. After all, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony made its name as one of the most musical rap groups of the Nineties. Many of Bone Thugs' best songs, including "Tha Crossroads," "1st of tha Month," and "Dayz of Our Lives," are marked by strong melodies, memorable choruses, fully fleshed-out instrumental accompaniment, and that trademark five-part harmonizing: sing-song rap parts layered over smoothly crooned singing parts.
All three songs made appearances Friday night. "Dayz," performed early in the set to much applause, was soulful and spot-on; "Tha Crossroads" felt a bit obligatory, but was nonetheless appreciated; and "1st of tha Month," part of the band's confusingly drawn-out encore (which included a raffle drawing for which no one seemed to have tickets), was a set highlight, despite being essentially identical to the album version. We might've expected more, especially given the fact that the four Bones were backed by live musicians on drums, trumpet, keyboards, and synthesizer, but given the circumstances, good was good enough.
The ninety-minute set's other highlights included openers "East 1999" and "Eternal"— both from the band's 1995 breakout album E. 1999 Eternal, naturally — which benefitted immensely from live drums and an added horn part. Later, "Notorious Thugs" (first recorded with Notorious B.I.G. in 1997) and "No Surrender," a catchy if violent anti-cop screed from the 1998 EP Creepin on ah Come Up, ended the evening on a hard note.
Yet beyond these intermittent notables, the evening featured altogether too much hip-hop showbiz foolishness. On at least eight occasions, we were asked to prove by the volume of our voices that we were having a good time. Ladies and thugs (or hustlaz, as the case may be) were called out on numerous occasions. The right, left, and center sections of the dancefloor were implored to compete in a yelling match. "Get ya muthafuckin hands in the air!" Layzie commanded more than once. Somewhere we'd heard this all before. Mid-set, the group invited about forty of those ubiquitous ladies onstage for a completely unnecessary montage of classic rap hits like "Boyz-n-the Hood," "Juicy," and "California Love."
The fact that the guys seemed to be having so much fun during all this made it much easier to forgive. And their frequently expressed fan appreciation appeared genuine and heartfelt. "First of all, thanks for supporting us for eighteen years," Layzie Bone said at the conclusion of the montage. After the last song, he was back at the mic: "Hey San Francisco, you're one of our greatest markets that buys our CDs and shit." No one mistook his sentiment for anything but gratitude.