When a musician has been around for longer than the reviewer’s been alive, it’s more than a little humbling to comment on their performance. I first became aware of Nightmares On Wax, also known as George Evelyn of Leeds, England, when I was ten or eleven years old. At that point, the music I heard day to day was mostly passively received — on the radio in my mother’s car from the backseat, blaring in restaurants, layered behind dialogue in movies. My older sister was fully in the throes of her teendom, however, her CD case quickly filling up with albums and mixes her cool friends had made her. One of these was a mysterious disc emblazoned with a half-peeled banana holding a katana sword. It was filled with underground hip hop gems, including one track called “70s80s” by – you guessed it – Nightmares on Wax. I first heard it thumping, tantalizingly smooth and different, from behind my sister’s half-shut door. I was hooked instantly. These sounds were so far from my mother’s Beatles albums, from the Kidz Bop trash peddled to me over the TV. In artists like Nightmares on Wax, I began to understand that music need not be confined by genre, and that the beat, in the end, is king.
Entering Paradise Rock Club into an undulating crowd made up of people of all ages and types, I knew that I wasn’t alone in my experience. Evelyn, appareled in a striped snapback and green button down, emceed from center stage accompanied by a drummer and two other vocalists. The performance was lengthy and high-energy, backed by projections of tribal dancing and the words “feeling good” wiggling in bubble letters. The crowd wasn’t shy about dancing — many jigged through the entire set, and more than one brave soul began to breakdance on the floor of the Paradise, harking back to Evelyn’s musical origins, as a member of a breakdancing crew in love with hip hop.
In many songs, Evelyn spurred the crowd into participation, feeding the room a brief melody to incant along with the group or a phrase to repeat at length. While I enjoy audience participation, as I lifted both arms in the air to sway along with a crowd prompted to say “cele, cele, celebration” over and over, Evelyn’s method of crowd involvement began to seem a bit canned — or, perhaps, just a little old fashioned. A sample of July Clay and William Bell’s “Private Number” on “You Wish,” the first track on Evelyn’s brand new album N.O.W. Is the Time, was as groovy as could be, but it struck me that these sounds were almost indistinguishable in character from the first tracks I ever heard from Nightmares On Wax when I was a young girl.
Looking over Evelyn’s stunning range of work, it’s quite clear that Nightmares On Wax has remained a consistent producer of very high quality music. Every track has his signature elements; hip hop beats with something fresh to them, creative sampling, easy tempo. I could put on the discography and happily listen forever without knowing I was moving through a quarter century. Looking at other artists’ evolutions, many of them containing radical changes, it’s interesting and also beautiful to consider a musical career as prolific and resilient as Evelyn’s marked by such consistency. It’s not at all that everything sounds the same — far from it! Experimentation and evolution (N.O.W. Is The Time features a lot more symphonic instruments and ambient currents than the other records, for example) run subtly but undeniably through the music, concealed only by the smoothness of its production and the familiar chill spirit always communicated by Evelyn.
As a band ages, fans seem to demand an impossible standard — we want our old favorites to stay the way they were when we first fell in love with them, but we also want them to remain energetic producers of revolutionary, ever-improving new content. Nightmares On Wax, happily, seems to have found a perfect balance of the two in their 25 years, and I look forward to the next 25.