Underworld: Still Best In The World?

Five years is a long time to wait for the return of your favorite live act, and when they’re pushing 50, as are Underworld’s Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, it must be assumed that they’re slowing down in their middle age. The previously prolific duo closed a chapter on their past with a compilation following 2002’s A Hundred Days Off album. Their recent series of four online-only releases (RiverRun Project) indicated a move away from hard dance-floor grooves of old towards something more cinematic and enigmatic. Comeback single ‘Crocodile’ is beautiful, for sure, but not anthemic like ‘Born Slippy’ or ‘Moaner.’ Their return to the American stage, embracing the great outdoors at venues like the Hollywood Bowl, Red Rocks in Denver and New York’s Central Park Summerstage, was therefore a double challenge to band and audience alike. Could they fill such venues after 2000 days off without a new commercial release? And could they still deliver a dirty epic live show like Underworld of old?

“OK Mr Price, I think it’s time for a little groove…” Karl Hyde’s introduction to ‘Two Months Off.’

The answers? Yes (just about). And yes. Underworld may not have sold out Summerstage in advance but come the balmy night, there was little room to move and an almost claustrophobic sense of excitement. Following a set by James Holden, which we missed while driving down to the City, they bounded on stage at 7:45 pm, launching into a 130 minute show that barely paused for breath. The addition of former touring DJ Darren Price (in a role which, throughout the 1990s but not the duo-only early 2000s, was taken by Darren Emerson) freed Karl back up to make the most of his natural front man skills. I had truly expected our friend Mr. Hyde to have tempered down his stage persona, but if anything, he seemed more exuberant than ever: decked out in a spangly silver coat in marked contrast to his partners’ jeans and trainers, freed of the headphones with which he used to tune in to the monstrously complex beats, he’s living proof that you’re never too old to stop (techno) dancing. As always, he played guitar on several songs, which serves to emphasize Underworld’s “rock crossover” appeal, but he came most alive – and the crowd with it – when running free across the vast expanse of Central Park. He is, and this is not intended as a back-handed compliment, the rave generation’s Mick Jagger.

Known for extending their songs even longer on stage than on album, Underworld’s set-list proved surprisingly short. It was heavy on the hits – ‘Pearl’s Girl,’ ‘Two Months Off,’ ‘Rez/Cowgirl,’ ‘Born Slippy’ and ‘King Of Snakes.’ (In other words at least one song from each of the albums.) It introduced the new single ‘Crocodile,’ an immediate stand-out, featuring Karl on guitar and that lovely ethereal chorus. It included a couple more from the excellent new album Oblivion With Bells, including the mid-tempo ‘Beautiful Burnout.’ And it interspersed said crowd pleasers with instrumentals long and short, familiar and not. A couple were set to backdrops of primitive arcade games ‘Space Invaders’ and ‘Pong.’ (Later, as Karl sang ‘King Of Snakes,’ he attached a film camera to the mic, making for a particularly intimate series of close-ups.) One ended in the spoken loop of what sounded like “jacktherhythmbody.” Another embraced some western guitar twang. And the mid-set rendition of ‘Rowla’ was possibly the loudest, most fierce-some ten minutes of acid techno you will ever hear this side of Hardfloor’s ‘Acperience.’ Thankfully, the passage of time has not tempered Underworld’s long-standing enthusiasm for deep dark bass and brutal 808/909 kick drums.

Can You Feel It? Underworld still hit hard. Crowd approves.

My inherent enthusiasm for Underworld occasionally gets the better of my objectivity. Forced to criticize, I could note that the rendition of the world’s greatest electronic instrumental, ‘Rez,’ bracketed by an introduction of and then an extended version of ‘Cowgirl’ (its last verse near enough a capella) was not their finest. And that ‘Born Slippy’ likewise lacked magic, perhaps through over-familiarity. I could offer that the use of massive blow-up glowsticks during ‘Two Months Off’ (aka “You bring light in”) bordered on a rave Spinal Tap moment, with roadies busily running round stage trying to bully them into place as the group were blocked from sight. I could lament the choice of the down-tempo ‘Jumbo’ for lone encore. And I could and will criticize the Greatest Hits format (all the more so given Underworld’s general disdain for commerciality), and the post-show backdrop phone-text advertisement.

But that’s mostly nit-picking for the sake of it. Underworld make albums as long-playing works of art that often demand close attention from the listener, and they’ll stand the test of time accordingly. But Underworld live shows are something else. They’re communal celebrations of all that is good and proper about the beat. They’re confirmation that electronic music was never a fad, at least where the likes of Hyde and Smith are concerned. They’re elastic, flexible, malleable and intensely emotional. And, as anyone who saw me there will verify, they make this particular man (and his missus) move like I was never capable of when I was a self-conscious teenager. Still the greatest live act in the world? For the two-plus hours Underworld are on stage, there’s never any question.

More Underworld at iJamming!, including a lengthy 2002 interview with Karl Hyde, can be accessed here.

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October 2021