About a million years ago, back when illegal downloading made me a bit skittish, this beautiful disaster was lounging around her graffiti-scrawled room, playing me some tracks she’d downloaded from LimeWire — some guy named Sage Francis. One was a live cut: a cool boom-bap beat, then a high vocal phrase, then both together at the same time. The crowd on the recording started freaking out.
“It’s OK, but what’s the big deal?” I asked, while she rummaged for her pipe.
“Umm … He’s doing all that with his mouth.”
Was that Sage Francis? Who knows, maybe not. But a lot of the other stuff she played that day definitely was, and it was for damn sure cooler than the Stankonia tape in my car stereo.
This pointless personal narrative would’ve taken place around the time of Sage’s first official release, 2002’s Personal Journals. Since then, the Providence, R.I. emcee has released three full albums, plus loads of music on his own indie label, Strange Famous, including live recordings, the “Sick” mixes series, as well as singles and EPs. He’s also graduated from the indie hip-hop minor leagues to being one of the first rappers to sign with Epitaph Records’ imprint for certified respectable weirdos, Anti-, alongside Tom Waits, Nick Cave and others. Not bad.
With his newest album, this year’s Human the Death Dance, Sage channels some of the angst from 2005’s A Healthy Distrust into more personal desolation, over music frequently infused with melancholy and reverberating, underwater beats. Exceptions to that tonality include the breakup blues “Keep Moving,” featuring a beat by Alias that could be an outtake from The Verve, and “Got Up This Morning,” a raucous stomp featuring a beat from Buck 65 and vocals and fiddle from Anti- labelmate, Jolie Holland (a little weird, but it works in a Beck kind of way).
Speaking of weirdness, there are plenty of weirder, more out-there emcees — the Dr. Octagons of the world — but Sage Francis’s unique voice and personality continue to make him an odd-man-out (of step) in hip hop. Here’s one more weird thing: By some accounts, Sage is happy enough if you download his music — just come to his shows. So if you get on the LimeWire or whatever, just make sure you get to Mr. Small’s on July 12.
Sage Francis with Buck 65, Alias and Buddy Wakefield. 8 p.m. Thu., July 12 (doors at 7 p.m.). Mr. Small’s Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $15. All ages. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com