Photos by Carrie Johnston
In his fourteen-year career as a rapper, Sage Francis has garnered fans through clever navigation of language around topics ranging from personal anguish and societal distrust, to being awkward around girls. His DIY approach has kept those fans loyal since making his first recordings out of his apartment in Providence, Rhode Island in 1999. After working with the big labels for the middle section of his career, he has gone back to his homemade label, Strange Famous.
Thankfully, Sage’s success has not catapulted him through the roof of fame and fortune. He is still essentially on the floor of that Rhode Island apartment, making music, booking tours, and embracing social media as a means to connect with fans. And I mean, really connecting. There are dozens of threads on his Facebook page and Twitter account revealing conversations with friends, fans, and passers-by alike. Sage seemingly has no bias against which people he engages with, provided it’s genuine. But his affections aren’t limited to behind-the-computer-screen small talk. After his show at the Alhambra Theater, he descended into the crowd offering hugs and handshakes to anyone within arm’s reach. He also made time to (affectionately) embarrass the girl who had “begged” him to squeeze this particular show into the tour roster by gushing and pointing at her between songs. Essentially, this is what draws fans to his music; it reaches out.
After two opening acts that buttered the audience oh so well, Sage made his entrance without fanfare. Dressed in a black and white gown and a flag bearing his label’s name, he commenced “Sea Lion,” an old favorite that most of the crowd chanted along with. Periodically, Sage would splice in samples of classic songs like Mr. Mister’s “Take These Broken Wings” and “Swingtown” by Steve Miller Band so we could all karaoke for a moment before he dropped back into the original track.
Perhaps his motive here (and to provide some unnecessary analysis to an act that was more likely just a goofball antic) was to move the attention away from “the man” and toward “the message,” which varyingly celebrates joys like classic rock and condemns sorrows like war and arrogant rappers. Although his songs often revolve around grim topics, Sage was careful to never let things get too dire. To aid this aim, he brought a paper bag full of broccoli crowns to share with us, and romantically serenaded his exalted sneakers. He was also loaded with quips; one particular zinger was in reference to Portlandia’s famous “Put a bird on it” skit (https://vine.co/v/b2mjZjWp6uA
Self mockery is a trait that’s consistently woven into his songs, even the dismal ones about childhood, masochistic siblings, and deception. Take the chorus to his autobiographical song, “Different” – “I’m different! Ooooooh! So different! Ooooooh!” His sense of fearless self-expression is the reason Personal Journals became an album that his fans listened to so much in 2005, it should have warped like an oven-baked vinyl record. And we come back to it every year since it’s always just as powerful. His live shows, as I was delighted to discover, are a pure extension of his records.