Counterclockwise MC Mr. Burns doesn't move so much as tumble forward, as if held aloft by strings. His long dreads, black bowler, baggy Linus sweatshirt, and DayGlo yellow kicks add up to a ragamuffin look suggestive of a 21st-century Artful Dodger.
He's accompanied by diminutive bassist Kaya, playing Oompa Loompa to Burns' colorful Willy Wonka. Her smiling, silent repose is foil to his mercurial mood.
Burns sits on a stool, shoulders hunched, head lolling from side to side as he raps over deep, Roots-like grooves. He promises to "keep it underground like an earthworm."
Suddenly he leaps up. As he stalks the footlights, unloading a hard-edged litany about "living from bounced check to bounced check," he looks like a man with nothing to lose, "just another nigga late paying the rent, pocketful of lint."
But menacing desperation is just one of his moods. Copping from David Bowie, Burns mashes "The Man Who Stole the World" into an eerie, horror-film synth line. Kaya offers backing vocals as Burns laments a lost girl. "I changed the Band-Aid," he sings, "but it still bleeds through."
Kaya undulates near Burns with her back to him while thumping out the haunting rhythm. She turns and slides down to her knees before him -- still playing -- as he swings his hips and claims, "she's my demise, caught between my best friend and the lies."
Some may remember Mr. Burns (aka Doug Johnson) from his role in the trip-hop group Prom Queen, winner of Scene's 1999 Best Avant-Garde award. A Cleveland Heights native, Johnson formed Counterclockwise five years ago, while studying film at NYU, and has been working with DJ Swamp, with whom he shared the bill. Back for less than a year, his mesmerizing performance is fine notice of his return.