November 15, 2013: Washington, DC
Expectations: This show was billed as an "early" show--a double billed electronic performance set with a third as an opener. Doors at 6 with the assumption that music would start shortly thereafter. We'd watch some knob turning, shake our bodies a bit, and have a seat at a nearby restaurant for dinner no later than 8:30.
Reality: We made it to our dinner just shy of 10:30. Due to "technical difficulties", the show was delayed nearly two hours. Although we were left to stand in the cold for that time, U St did a pretty decent job of trying to keep us informed and handed out comp tickets to multiple upcoming events. Standing in line led to lots of recent show and shows of yesteryear re-capping. It also brought to our attention a note that one of the headliners, Hopkins, had recently been featured on NPR, which seemed to explain the somewhat unexpected large showing. As the hour of 8pm approached, the doors were opened and we were assured a full (un-truncated) set from all billed acts.
Nathan Fake started things off, but I'm not sure I was ready for it. He gave us burst after burst of interesting texture, but each burst rarely lasted for more than 30 seconds. It was kind of like Girl Talk, expect you've probably never heard any of it before. That made it hard for me to fully warm to anything. I joked that maybe he was compensating for the late start and a suggestion to cut his set by simply boosting the BPMs on everything. Having said that, it was one of the longest opening acts I've seen in recent memory, going nearly a full hour. Perhaps he's really an ambient artist and if played at it's normal tempo, the set would have lasted three hours! Fake may also have been sold short by what seemed like only a partial offering of U St's famed sound system. There were clearly disabled monitors all over the place and the result made the sound feel a little empty.
Jon Hopkins, the act that brought me there, was second to hit the stage. The boundaries between his songs were unclear, but I gather he played four or five "songs" in a seamless fashion. He gave us several well received, extended variations from tracks off of Immunity (e.g., We Disappear). Perhaps deemed too mellow for a live set, I was a little disappointed he didn't work through the album's title track, but otherwise it was sonically rewarding. U St definitely upped their sound system for his portion and it paid off with a fuller sound. Hopkins also did a nice job of building up his set. And while I hate to use the phrase, it's fair to say he set a groove.
Apparently Hopkins is the one that brought most people out last night--or should I say NPR is what did it? In any case, the bodies fell to about 25% of where they were once he left the stage. We didn't give Clark much of a shake either (and nor had I beforehand). Our stomachs started to get the upper hand on our ears, but from the ten or so minutes we gave him, I learned enough to say that I should probably give his recorded work another spin.
A wise observer noted more than once that the show could have used something else--perhaps something visual to make it fully entertaining. The house lights were barely dimmed and the truth is that staring at someone working behind a laptop and other electronic equipment isn't particularly compelling. One thing this show did for me was make me think through some of my early-90s party/rave-going days. If my memory serves me correctly, the artist/performer/dj was rarely the primary focus. Even when there was a clear headliner where a "live" set was to be performed (e.g. Plastikman), the attendees didn't stand in row after row looking at the performer. In most cases, you could walk up right to the DJ without having to navigate through a tightly packed herd of people. It was more like the sound booth at a concert.
Instead, there were groups scattered about, perhaps in their own circles. It was more social and far less about the artist as a spectacle. In some ways, you knew the performer had done their job well if you didn't notice them. But to be clear, that's not to say that the music was secondary or relegated to the background. It was loud (and in Detroit at the time it was dark and heavy).
All of this goes to say that there's lots of room to make electronic performance more robust, visually or otherwise. A number of artists are already doing it (e.g. Tycho)--and others have been doing it a long, long time. It's now becoming an expectation and the reality didn't quite go there this time around. If that doesn't start happening universally, perhaps the point of going to a show like this one shouldn't be about "seeing" a performance after all.