He’s a lean, mean, rapping machine. He’s Ceelo Green, baby.
Of course, most of that is not even close to an apt description. He’s a shortish, overweight, bald guy, who sweats so much onstage that the DJ in his backup band is seemingly assigned to mop his glistening brow on stage several times a show. He makes it rain by scraping his fingers over his scalp and then flicking huge droplets across the stage. He’s got a big heart and it’s hard to imagine anyone more human. The rapping thing is on point, though. He is still quick and clever and can flow freestyle magic with the best of them. And yeah, he can really sing with soul.
He’s so damn beautiful when he gets on stage and sings about love. Green took the stage in a full leather track suit, which probably didn’t help with the sweating under bright stage lights. But he looked the part, and he’s a true professional. He is a spectacular performer to the marrow in his bones. He puts all of himself into the act. As he says, “I think Ceelo Green [his nom de guerre] is a means by which Thomas Calloway [his given name] can live vicariously.” But he doesn’t dwell on what characteristics belong to what name as he adds, “You know, I’ve made quite a success out of being myself.”
Green came up in the hip-hop/R&B/soul world with some of the most respected artists on the scene in Alanta. He’s part of the Dungeon Family, a southern hip-hop collective that includes the much-beloved and respected Outkast, Bubba Sparxxx, Killer Mike, and Green’s own Goodie Mob.
The idea behind “The Love Train Tour” was not only to promote Heart Blanche, Green’s latest album, but also to go deeper into his roots by performing at intimate music venues in historic, Southern cities and pay homage to the great music legends that inspired him. These include Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ike and Tina Turner, and, of course, B.B. King. The Orange Peel, which worked magnificently for the concept, was the second stop followed by a similar venue in Atlanta. Green finishes up the tour mid-month with stops in Charlotte and Raleigh, if you want to catch him down the road.
When I talked with Green, prior to the show date, he said he was looking forward to Asheville, which is one of only two small cities on the tour because, “It’s not about size. It’s significance. Asheville is beautiful, it’s not my first time there by the way, and I remember being shown a lot of hospitality: gracious, kind, generous people showering us with love and affection. And that love is reciprocated, of course.”
Love, pain and connection
How cool is Green? In a time when there is so much hate and vitriol and in a genre — one that tends to be associated with harsh words and comes out of deep wounds from racial injustice — he is one of the artists who has doubled down on music about love and good feelings, with a healthy “F**k You” to the haters.
Green’s hit song from 2010 (has it been that long?) brought down the house as the penultimate number. A cloud of cell phones formed instantly above the audience. Everyone wants to take home a little snippet of the live, fully-committed, falling-to-his-knees Green singing the mixed-emotion breakup song (definitely not the radio version) that defined a summer for some. But for me, it was the way Green came out swinging at the beginning of the show that energized me and sucked me in, dropping fan-favorites like “Closet Freak,” “I’ll Be Around” (with a talented back-up vocalist subbing in for Timbaland’s part) and “Bright Lights Bigger City” in quick succession. The crowd was feeling good.
It helped that he had a strong opening act with Escort, a playfully sexy, rhythm driven funk/soul act out of New York City. Seriously, it’s about the most fun you can have with one chord and two percussionists.
But Green himself wasn’t feeling 100-percent. He said he hurt himself during a previous performance, and he was not moving full speed. You could tell. In fact, that may be what led to the weirdest note in the show. He took what seemed like an unscheduled break in the middle, during which the DJ played a bunch of tracks stereotypically loved by white people (it was at least a 95-percent white audience), from Nirvana to the Eurythmics to the Police. But Green powered through, came back strong and seemed to thoroughly enjoy connecting with the audience.
Green is used to performing for people of all stripes. When I spoke with him, I asked up what kind of people he thought his fans were, and he diplomatically answered, “It’s hard to narrow down what a Ceelo Green fan is. I’ve never really tried to reach any certain demographic. It’s crazy because, one time I remember the line at a show and they were saying that the line at a Ceelo Green Show is like the line at the DMV, if that makes any sense. And that was kind of spot on. You just might see anybody there. I get so much love from [people] ranging from 8 to 80. Love is love, and I definitely love whoever loves me. It’s pretty simple, as far as I’m concerned.”
I was feeling the love Wednesday night. I had learned earlier in the day that a dancer friend of mine — coincidentally named Love — passed away from injuries sustained in a brutal car accident that left him in a coma for days. His mother made a hard decision and let him go after a long, tough stay in the hospital, and his loving spirit left his body. So I was feeling the Love. Because love means a lot of things and one of them is grieving.
Green’s single last fall, “Robin Williams,” received mixed reviews. But when he preformed it Wednesday night at The Orange Peel, I felt like I was right there with him emotionally, and we were laughing the pain away together. I keep coming back to that song as a special moment in the show, perhaps because whether it’s through laughing or dancing or singing, connecting with each other helps us as humans to process the stuff we go through.
I asked Green about the “laugh the pain away” refrain in “Robin Williams.” He lost his mother and father when he was just a child, and I wondered if the line referred to a strategy he’d used his whole life, or if it was a new mechanism for dealing with problems. “We all are smiling in the face of some form of adversity, you know what I’m saying,” he said. “And so that’s pain creating a common denominator that connects most people. … I was just kinda trying to write it as a real person. I didn’t write that song as Ceelo Green, I wrote that song as Thomas Calloway, as a real person, because I could relate to the loss. And I’m just like damn, [as a fan of Williams] you can’t help but think of how much we lost. Or with Michael Jackson, these people are so immensely talented, it’s like, ‘Who’s gonna save my soul now?'”
Every once in a while, I turn on a Ceelo song, like my favorite, “Gettin’ Grown,” I feel like he might have saved a little piece of my soul. At the end of the Wednesday night show at The Orange Peel, I felt that way: lighter, unburdened and a little closer to the people around me.