If there was any doubt as to which hip-hop group was most revered by the acts on the Rock the Bells Tour and the fans who came to see them, it was quelled midway through Thursday's performance at Avalon. "Where the Wu-Tang fans at?," asked Raekwon , and the space above the audience's heads was immediately filled with hands forming W shapes that mimicked the rap collective's logo.
No surprise there. Two of the bill's five acts -- Raekwon and Ghostface Killah -- come from the Wu-Tang Clan. A third, Redman, has been partnering with Wu-Tang's Method Man on records, in movies, and on television for more than a decade. Combined with the countless shout-outs to Wu-Tang by all of the acts, it was enough to put the entire show in the shadow of a group that wasn't technically there.
Smif N Wessun kicked things off. There was a fraternal warmth between MCs Tek and Steele , but it was hampered by a DJ who was a little too trigger-happy with the handgun samples that punctuated the songs. Freestyle champion and world record holder Supernatural followed by good-naturedly riffing on words and objects given to him by the audience.
It was Raekwon who gave the show the jolt it needed, though. With a rhythmic backdrop that ran the gamut from blaxploitation-era soul to crawling, Massive Attack -style grooves, he fizzled out only toward the end, when he was forced to stall for the delayed Ghostface Killah.
When he did finally arrive, Ghostface amped things up even further with a looseness that could translate into either high-energy anthems or a breathless, jazzy flow. But he eventually ran out of steam as well, and the man who had earlier been rapping into two microphones during "One" eventually sat back and let the other MCs in his entourage take over.
By the time Redman took the stage, the floor had noticeably cleared out. He never let go of the idea (expressed by the others as well) that hip-hop's past was better than its present, saving most of his enthusiasm for songs from his 1992 debut, "Whut? Thee Album," and 1996's "Muddy Waters. " He vowed to bring those days back, but he commanded the stage like someone with something to prove who couldn't quite prove it.