Hari Kondabolu / Sean Devlin Biltmore Cabaret, Vancouver BC, February 25
Published Feb 27, 2016JFL Northwest didn't announce this gig as a sell-out, but the room filled steadily until the last few stragglers were forced to lounge awkwardly around pillars or sit on steps around the fringes. It was a vibrant, varied crowd, mostly seated in chairs spread across the well-worn dance floor at the Biltmore Cabaret, a venue known more for its well-curated selection of indie gigs, funky club nights and weekly burlesque than comedy. Yet the low ceiling basement of a former Howard Johnson hotel, best illuminated with dimly lit glass and red glow to tastefully obscure the stains and compliment its character, proved an ideal space in which to see a double bill of biting, racially and politically charged stand-up.
With the anticipation mounting for Hari Kondabolu, it was the job of Sean Devlin, Vancouver activist and executive director of Shit Harper Did, to get the crowd electrified, which he announced contrastingly with a rather lethargic, deadpan delivery that he would maintain for his set. He didn't exactly have the presence of a guy who was once forcibly removed from a Harper event, but his content left no question as to his socio-political leanings. He went hard after racism and male domination, offering perspective from his Philippine heritage that perfectly suited the headliner thematically while contrasting in style.
Demonstrating awareness of his surroundings, or at least his Google proficiency, Hari Kondabolu kicked the energy up right off the bat with a lengthy rant about how Vancouver is really in the Pacific Southwest, and how we shouldn't let America brainwash us into wishing we were part of their Pacific Northwest. He pumped up the Canadian pride while railing against Portland, whose overwhelming whiteness would return as a topic later on, before apologizing that the energy he'd created was unsustainable, and that the rest of the set would end up somewhere between that and Devlin. He was true to his word, and that did set the tone for the level of honesty he would deliver.
Throughout the set, Kondabolu proclaimed himself a cynical hypocrite of moderate fame, a killjoy who does comedy, laughing as much at his own foibles as the world's many problems. After dropping a joke about Justin Trudeau's election, he copped to the fact he had just Wikipedia'd it, and didn't even know what the joke meant. He then followed it up by stating a few facts about Canada with a kind of mock pride, a confident tone as if he was well-versed on the subject while clearly acknowledging his ignorance.
Kondabolu is a really sharp guy, though. The proud owner of a Masters degree in Human Rights from the London School of Economics, he doesn't tell a lot of easy jokes. Although, like any worthy follower in the George Carlin/Bill Hicks tradition, he made sure to fit a couple of cum jokes in there for the mainstream, he otherwise elevated the rant to fine art, a "rant in E-minority" as it were. His righteous indignation was tempered by self-deprecating humility and educated thoughtfulness.
He spent some time talking about his parents too, but wouldn't imitate their Indian accents for fear of piling onto existing prejudices. He's acutely aware of how his words effect the world around him. With that in mind, he left us on a heartfelt bit about how we need to take care of ourselves, first and foremost, before we can take care of anyone else. All of this showed his skill in crafting a unique yet professional set.
Generally speaking, Kondabolu has been on something of a slow rise over the past five years or so. I first saw the Brooklyn-based comic perform in the comedy/dance tent at Sasquatch 2011, some three years before the release of his debut album, Waiting for 2042, titled after the date in which white people were predicted to become the minority in America. As announced at this show, a second album has thankfully been recorded. Somewhat ironically titled Mainstream American Comic, it will be coming out in spring, again through Kill Rock Stars, and if the material delivered in this show is any indication, it's gonna be gangbusters. Hari is one of the best there is at what he does, and he's just entering his prime.