Brother Ali / Bambu / MaLLy

Tattoo, Toronto ON, November 5

Brother Ali / Bambu / MaLLyTattoo, Toronto ON, November 5
Photo: Shane Parent
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"It's not like you gotta work in the morning," charismatic emcee Bambu asks the throng between songs as he warms up Tattoo for the evening's headliner. "What is it, Friday?"

It's Wednesday. He's not even close.

"Oh. Some of you really do gotta work in the morning."

Bambu and his tourmates — Brother Ali, host MaLLy, and DJ Last Word — can be forgiven for not knowing when they are, as where they are is 40 stops deep into a small-club crusade across 47 North American towns. Ali's Home Away from Home tour began in early September and won't end until mid-November.

The 37-year-old artist doesn't even have a new album out to promote. His most recent LP, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Colour, dropped in 2012. But tearing stages is both his calling and his job, and has been for more than a decade now. He's half-blind, Albino, Muslim and really not that famous — he might never be — but few own a stage like Brother Ali. He makes the dais his home and makes sure everyone in the packed club gets their 25 bucks' worth and then some. I'm not sure if any emcee in history can pack as many words, ideas and emotions into an 80-minute set as the self-proclaimed "cross between John Gotti and Mahatma Gandhi" does.

Backed only by Last Word's instrumental selections, Ali's show veers expertly from political to personal, from chilling to thrilling. The first highlight arrives with his performance of "The Travelers," 2010's vivid recount of American slavery: "Live in your own piss and shit and bein' seasick/ Cracked across your back with a thick leather whip/ Saltwater burns through your wounds." Each word stings with history; the emcee's breath control and enunciation is second to none, which is crucial when delivering from a catalogue with such strong writing.

It's hardly the type of music that makes you want to party, but as Ali points out during one of a handful of explanations he makes between songs, he doesn't just make feel-good music, he makes "feel-everything music." So after a rendition of the bluesy and fed-up "Uncle Sam Goddamn," in which he updates his lyrics to reflect 2014's U.S. atrocity — "What about the police that shot Mike Brown?" — and an impassioned speech explaining why the acts of a few terrorists aren't not representative of his Muslim faith, he vows to lighten the mood with happy joints.

The gears switch effortlessly. Head-nodders pile on top of each other like pancakes: "More," "Fresh Air," personal favourite "Take Me Home," and "Forrest Whittaker," hip-hop's coolest love-yourself anthem. A quick, playful freestyle gets plugged in, allowing Ali to flex his familiarity with his host city: "Gotta say, Toronto's a great place/ But I like Shad more than I like Drake." And after well over an hour of encouraging and emoting, the champ swipes sweat from his big, bald, pasty head. He admits he's too old to go through the "corny" charade of leaving the stage only to return for an encore. So the warm-up acts — as with past tours, all handpicked by Ali himself — are invited back to the spotlight for the tour-exclusive "Home Away from Home" posse cut. And you can feel there's love in numbers.

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