FRIDAY OCTOBER 25, 2002
. . .The Underworld site dirty.org has been nice enough to link to my interview with Karl Hyde. Even nicer, they've called it "the best interview of the band this year that we have right now.". . .
. . .I wrote yesterday how incredibly popular the Rapture 12" 'House of Jealous Lovers' is in New York City. Neil Strauss penned a glowing profile of the Rapture's production duo, DFA (who also work with Radio 4) in the New York Times this week. It gives a little more insight into how New York has revitalized itself in recent years. I'm glad to hear people like DFA's James Murphy comment that, four years ago, New York youth culture was "Totally dead. There was nothing going on. It was awful." I was thinking of moving on round that time, things were so bad. And I didn't have the energy to start throwing parties again myself. I'm glad that people like DFA (and many many others) did. The results speak for themselves. . .
. . .A new British poll found that "One in 10 Britons cannot name a single world leader but can list up to five characters in television soap opera EastEnders." In fact, "only a quarter could identify Iraqi President Saddam Hussein." (Mind you, given the number of doubles he employs as decoys, neither could most of the Iraqi population). But what really got me were these two paragraphs, which ran almost alongside each other: "Only 44% of Welsh respondents could name a world leader,"
. "Welsh respondents were most likely to keep up to date with the news, with only 5% confessing to never taking an interest." So what the f*** do they consider 'news' in Wales? EastEnders updates? (Some e-mail responses on the BBC web site make for more interesting reading than most BBC news. I particularly liked this one, which recommends that on Eastenders itself, "Perhaps Dot and Pauline should discuss the roots of Islamic terrorism, Saddam's oppression of the Kurds, and the US withdrawal from the Kyoto agreement in the laundrette."). . .
. . .While on the subject, I watched BBC World News last night, and during its lengthy broadcast from the hostage crisis in Moscow, the only time the T word was used was when the reporter noted that the British had sent in an Anti-Terrorism Unit. How did he describe the hostage-takers otherwise? As 'rebels.' Similarly, as I write this (12.20pm EST), the front-page BBC web-site story on the situation refers to 'hostages' eight times, 'rebels' four times and 'guerillas' three times. The word(s) 'terror(ism)(ist)' appears not once. (They appear three times on the New York Times web site lead story.) Here's a quote from the 'terror-free' BBC story for you to digest while you ponder the definition of a rebel. "Many of the hostages have been tied in their seats and some have had explosive strapped on to them." . . .
. . .How many smokers died on September 11? A trick question? A joke in poor taste? I'd like to think so, but it didn't stop the owner of my local Mail Boxes post station posing it in an angry debate about Mayor Bloomberg's anti-smoking campaign. His answer: None. (Delivered not just with a straight face, but shouting.) His reasoning? After the first plane hit, those who evacuated the buildings used the opportunity to light up in the Plaza. And when the south tower was given the all clear, said smokers decided to stay around and light another, by which they avoided being in their offices when the second plane hit. I'm sure this pathetic justification for drug addiction offers little comfort to the relatives of those victims (including those "smokers") who were precisely where they were meant to be when the planes hit (especially the first one): i.e., at their desks, working, not skiving off for a drug break up to a quarter mile away. And that's not even stopping to consider the dubious thought process by which one decides to light up when surrounded by burning jet fuel. It's with comments like this one that the pro-smoking lobby proves itself as narrow-minded and, let's face it, insane as the NRA.. . .
. . ."The Who did well this summer. The money thing just happens around us. It is not what drives us. Not really. Astonishing to think that three years ago Roger and I toured to keep shopaholic John out of debtor's prison." Shortly after the Two came off the road, and two weeks before John Entwistle's memorial service, Pete Townshend wrote sensibly and positively about life with or without The Who. You may have seen this already. I hadn't. . .
. . .Readers letters: "I thought you'd love to know that my son Eamon is now a HUGE Who fan... He's always loved "rock n roll" as he says, and so I turned him on to Quadrophenia, and the opening songs are really his theme song now... He just loves the suspenseful buildup of the storm and the waves and the guy singing "far away"... And BAM song two starts and he goes off (well, actually, we both go off...) and we totally rock out for most of disc one... I've been getting him into disc two, particularly the grand finale, which he also loves..." Eamon is two years old, by the way. And I thought I started young.
And another: "I'm on the Stones tour and my bus has a few wine lovers. What do you recommend for a good after show tour bus wine?" I only 'recommend' wine to go with music. Still, if the Stones are paying, I'd go straight for vintage Bordeaux. If they're not, something tells me to drink local. After all, you're traveling through an entire wine-making continent. (More states make wine than most people think.) If you can't make it into a wine shop in each city and ask for the best wine made in their region, then I'd buy a mixed case of good zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and make sure you send me a bottle. (And when I get my Tom Petty review up, I'll make some more specific recommendations.)
THURSDAY OCTOBER 23
HOW WAS IT FOR ME?
It's been a good year for spinning records. I haven't played out that often, but quality over quantity: when I have done they've been some of my most enjoyable DJ experiences ever. There's no doubt in my mind why this should be the case: we're in the midst of a glorious "anything goes" period in club land, both in the States and in Britain: diversity rules, and as long as you can program your variety wisely, then as a DJ you'll never feel better for having kept an open musical mind through the years.
Last night at the Girls And Boys night at Filter 14 was an excellent example. I played after the local mod band, Headquarters, which allowed me to start with some sixties classics. But I wanted to avoid the obvious hits, so I chose 'Life Is Just Beginning' by the Creation,(rather than 'Making Time' which everyone knows) 'David Watts' by The Kinks (never played it out before, sounds great) and 'The Kids are Alright' by the Who. Fortunately, the audience was right with me in its enthusiasm. The Stones 'Let's Spend The Night Together' then segued perfectly into The Charlatans' 'Just When You're Thinking Things Over' by which point I was in the Madchester-Britpop mode that the night's known for. (And which was amplified by this week's Transatlantic festival, in which Liverpool and Manchester bands and labels have come to New York to play music, show movies, and, so it would seem, spin records.)
By the frequency with which the same songs get played in certain clubs every week I sometimes assume that the 20-something New Yorkers only have a limited knowledge of British indie rock. Not so. Looking through my decade old boxes earlier yesterday, I had come across as 12" of 'Planet Love' by Manchester band The Dylans and remembered it going down well back at Communion a decade ago. I didn't expect anyone to recognize it from anything, but I was approached afterwards and thanked for that specific song. (And it's great proof that the Madchester vibe extended way beyond the Roses and the Mondays.) A Drum Club mix of Chapterhouse's 'Don't Look Now' and the Justin Robertson remix of the Inspiral Carpets' 'Caravan' also met with favorable responses, while there was understandably confused delight over the 'New York' mix of The Smiths' 'This Charming Man.' (That's the 12" mix commissioned by Sire that the group disowned and had deleted as soon as they heard it.) And yet when I played 'How Was It For You?' by James, which I consider a well known song, two people came rushing up to the DJ booth to ask what the hell it was. That's the way it goes.
How was it for them? Tim Burgess and Ken Richards in the booth; the Filter 14 floor while yours truly was spinning; Neil Claxton and Chris Baker from Mint Royale add samplers to the turntable mix
Ninety minutes didn't allow for as much experimentation as I'd have liked, though I was happy to end with a nice little run: the 2 Many DJs mash-up of The Stooges' 'No Fun' with Salt-n-Papa's 'Push It' segued into the Fatboy Slim mix of Cornershop's 'Brimful Of Ash' ending with home-town heroes The Rapture's 'House of Jealous Lovers.' (That last 12" is so popular in New York, it's quite a thrilling experience to play it.)
My good friend and contender for nicest front man in rock music Tim Burgess then took over alongside New Yorker Ken Richards, and played ninety minutes of varied 7"s (Kraftwerk, New Order, Stevie Wonder, Primal Scream, Beastie Boys, even Spandau Ballet got in on the act), while Chris and Neil from, no, not the Pet Shop Boys, but Mint Royale, added a sampler to their two-turntable act in the next door room and played the kind of funky fun set that deserved a much bigger crowd. Mint Royale's second album has just come out in the UK; the only cut I've heard so far is 'Sexiest Man in Jamaica,' which is included, and stands out on, the new Big Beach Boutique 2 mix. I wasn't surprised to hear from the duo that they're no longer with MCA in the States; majors rarely have a clue how to handle hip British dance acts, especially when they release the records so far behind the UK. Maybe Mint Royale will get lucky and get a good indie deal. Maybe they won't, and we'll remember them in ten years like we remember The Dylans: only vaguely, but fondly.
Suffice to say, the overall vibe in the club was superb throughout. Thanks to all everyone for making it a special night.
WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 22
Atlantic Avenue has a well-deserved reputation as Brooklyn's most multi-cultural street especially in the two-mile corridor extending from New York Harbor. The Atlantic Antic, held every September, is arguably the most authentic and eclectic street fair in the whole of New York City. The restaurants and bars, antique dealers and home decoration stores, clothes shops and even churches all put their wares on the sidewalk for a day-long feast of food, drink, shopping and music, and wandering up and down the avenue sampling baklava, curry, falafel, burritos, burgers, cake, margaritas and beer, one can simultaneously take in music and dancing from the equivalent cultures. Two September Sundays ago, I rejoiced in witnessing everything from young rock groups to first generation doo wop acts, belly dancers to mariachi players, gospel choirs to steel bands, and house DJs to barn dancing.
But as anyone who really knows the area knows, one cultural region more than any other dominates the many minorities of Atlantic Avenue: the Middle East. Down towards 4th Avenue, its one Islamic supply store after another, interrupted only by an infamous mosque, a Post Office and the occasional Mid-eastern eatery. After September 11 last year, the Avenue was understandably tense for a while - though, to the neighborhood and the city's credit, that tension never spilled into violence. Still, no one was surprised when the Atlantic Antic, scheduled for just a couple of weeks after September 11, was canceled. (In the saddened city of late 2001, it would surely have been canceled regardless of the community's cultural make-up.)
A scaled-down version of the street fair took place in the spring, after which organizers came back for their annual September permit, only to be turned down: city rules dictate just one street fair per calendar year, even in exceptional circumstances. This September therefore also passed by without the Atlantic Antic, and to make matters worse for the local businesses, the entire Avenue has been dug up for a major structural project. Cars and buses are being funneled into endless traffic jams; pedestrians frequently have to cross at unintended corners. The Avenue is, quite simply, a mess.
Undeterred and unbowed, the Atlantic Avenue convened a 'Town Hall' Meeting this past weekend to discuss 'Building The Boulevard,' a plan by which Atlantic Avenue would become the primary shopping street in the borough. A major urban design team has already been retained to help develop the plan. Though I didn't attend the meeting, I was sufficiently inspired by their enthusiasm to take the Avenue's businesses up on their other event for the weekend: a 'Walk The Windows' shopping promotion.
The mess that is currently Atlantic Avenue: and a local cafe's humorous response
What struck me most vibrantly was how, even with the road project causing chaos, even absent the Antic, Atlantic Avenue remains an advert for all that's remarkable about New York City, Brooklyn especially. Strolling up and down the Avenue is like taking a walk through the United Nations but without the bickering and politicking. Over there, for example, is an Afghan restaurant and, almost catty-corner to it, a Lebanese one; here stands the old fashioned, easygoing Brooklyn Diner, and across the road from it the newer, upscale Brooklyn Grill; an Indian curry house competes close to a Mexican restaurant; that place there is called the Bedouin Tent and this one here is the Jamaican cafe Brawta; a Spanish tapas bar duels pleasantly alongside a French bistro. No wonder the clothing store next to the Flying Saucer café has taken the name the Melting Pot.
The bars are similarly diverse. On the corner of 3rd Avenue, the outwardly shambolic Hanks Tavern has a great reputation for live jazz, country and punk; Studio Tavern across the road looks like it hasn't had a paint job in a generation, but still boasts, by hand-written sign, "we have pool table." Further toward the river are the new arrivals: The Brazen Head, where I watched the USA games during the World Cup and occasionally make it on a Saturday morning for the English Premier League; Pete's Waterfront Ale House; and the perfectly named Last Exit. They're all welcome additions to the hood, and at least two of them have enough different beers to satisfy CAMRA Man: I wish I had enough drinking time in my life to actually frequent them.
Upmarket Atlantic Avenue: Bedouin Tent; Breukelyn; Urban Monster
Among Atlantic Avenue's biggest claims to fame is its antique stores. The names are generic (In Days Of Old, Olde Good Things, Time Trader, A Matter Of Time); the wares are not. Stores run to four or five floors, selling everything from frighteningly expensive 18th century French rarities to slick-looking 1950s metal cabinets; one even claims the largest collection of stained glass windows in the country. In recent years, ambitious home décor shops like Breukelyn, Rico and Southern Comforts have smartly emerged on the same blocks, intimating to shoppers that chic modern works just as well in place of, or perhaps alongside, classic old(e).
It would be cruel to label these new stores with the dreaded 'yuppie' tag, but there's a high-end slickness about them that's off putting in a recession. I was surprised to see animal skin being used in many designs, and I was turned off by the prices: whether it's $50 for a stainless steel salt shaker or $3000 for a velour sofa, it's beyond the Brooklyn I first moved to. Or am I just out of touch?
The few clothes stores on the Avenue proved less prohibitive. Legacy was preparing a generous wine-and-cheese opening party when we ambled in; the minimalist Butter and Jelly (same owner perhaps?) looked intriguingly stylish though hardly overflowing with custom; and Kimera, an offshoot from a parent store on my neighborhood 5th Avenue, offered a pleasant far-eastern balance of clothing, textiles and furnishings at affordable prices. Still, the tendency towards trendiness can be overbearing. Urban Monster, though not yet open, has already adorned its windows with the slogan 'Supplies for Hip City Kids and Moms.' Ouch! Someone should inform them that hipness, by definition, can only be assigned; it can not be claimed.
Equally distasteful is the sudden and unnecessary determination to band together the surrounding youth scenes into one 'trendy' area. You can blame the cultural success of Manhattan's Tribeca (Triangle Below Canal) and the burgeoning NoLiTa (North of Little Italy) for the meshing of Boerum Hill (which in theory includes this stretch of Atlantic Avenue), Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens into the forced BoCoCa. Now it's true that these three communities overlap each other, and that they've become home to countless restaurants, bars, cafes, DJ spots and other hipster joints in the last five years as the happening youth have fled Manhattan for Brooklyn, but such forced scenester-ism is patently pretentious. You want to hang out at Halcyon, Kili or Bar Below, come on down. They're not hard to find and they don't need a new community built around them to justify themselves.Then again, the BoCoCa web site is so well designed it may single-handedly justify the neighborhood's invention (and that may well be its intention).
Walking The Windows on Atlantic and getting a dose of street art in the process
The best balance between Atlantic Avenue old and new, cheap and chic, artistic and simplistic, was the unexpected and compelling display of larger than life caricatures, set to a graffiti style background, in the windows of the 24-hour 'Super Wash Center'. The artist had posted a type-sized letter explaining how he has been "covertly drawing commuters on the subway," how these pictures reflect the "diversity of our communities' and how he is "happy to share them" with us and hopes we "enjoy them." Modest and generous to a fault, he doesn't even leave his full name, though he does reference his web site. Presented straight to the street at no cost, one would like to think that this is New York culture at its truest. Or certainly most altruistic.
But walking back toward 4th Ave, the realities of our contemporary city following the anguish of last year make themselves known in subtle ways. On the north side of Atlantic, the front door of the Lewis Gallery is still dedicated to a weekend assistant who died in the attacks of September 11; and three doors down, just the other side of the African gift shop Zawadi, and as if in sympathy, an Islamic store sells the video 'Islam Denounces Terrorism.'
Pretty much everyone in the district, myself included, wants to believe that this stretch of Atlantic Avenue is home to the moderate Muslims with whom we can, will and must move forward for a peaceful world. But few of us can be certain. On the south side of the Avenue is the Al-Farooq mosque, which famously turned Rudy Guiliani out of the building when he was on a walking tour a few years ago. It's even more famous to reporters and investigators for having hosted speeches by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric accused of a conspiracy to blow up New York bridges, tunnels, the United Nations, and already convicted for his involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center; prior to that, it reportedly hosted the first Conference of Jihad, at which Abdullah Azzam (widely considered to be Osama Bin Laden's spiritual mentor, and after whom Hamas named its military brigade) urged Muslims to "fight infidels with the sword until they convert to Islam."
Similarly, somewhere on this block, right by the mosque, all through the Soviet occupation of Aghanistan in the 1980s and beyond, stood the Alkhifa Center, the American headquarters of what terrorist experts consider was Al-Qaeda's predecessor organization. Perhaps it was housed at the store, right next to the al-Farooq mosque, that sells cheaply-designed video nasties with titles like 'Illuminazi 9-11: Who's Really Behind The Terrorist Attacks on the World Trade Center, Osama Bin Laden or Osama Bin Bush?' and 'My Journey from Christianity to Islam by Former Nun'. But then again, perhaps the Alkhifa Center was housed in the store next to that one, which has adorned its front walls with postcard-sized explanations of Islam, including the assertion, for example, that "the life of all citizens in a Muslim society is sacred. . .whether that person be a Muslim or not;" This second store also sells bumper stickers quoting the Koran on how 'Hatred Is Not A Family Value' along with a prominently-displayed photo of the Twin Towers, and books with titles like 'Jesus Will Return.'
Atlantic Avenue post 9-11: the controversial Mosque and surrounding stores that offer conflicting messages; a window display for a working victim; a denouncement of terrorism in a neighboring Islamic store window
And it's true, times have changed. Azzam was assassinated in Pakistan in 1989; Rahman has been incarcerated in New York since 1995. And we've all paid the price for their extremism. The local Islamic community came out in distressed support and sympathy for New York City and, by extension, the USA and western values of religious tolerance, in many marches, gatherings and vigils over the last year. And even Mayor Guiliani showed unusual tolerance and forgiveness after his near-death experience on September 11; by the following morning, the Al-Faruq mosque had round-the-clock police protection.
And yet it's hard for my mind not to flash back to a summer morning a few years ago, when I was woken early to the sound of several police helicopters right above my house; it turned out that a plot to blow up the Atlantic Avenue subway station by a group of Middle Eastern men living in squalor off 4th Avenue, had been averted at the last minute only by a co-conspirator who suffered a change of heart and flagged down police cars while simulating an explosion. (He couldn't speak English.) You have to wonder what would inspire Islamic fundamentalists to blow up the subway stop at the core of New York City's Islamic culture, but then no one ever said that terrorists were logical. (The plotters were written off as ameteur wanna-bes and have not been mentioned in any of the recently published books on terrorism that I've taken time to read. Nonetheless, they were within hours of carrying out an atrocity.)
And so life goes on. If the attacks of September 11 really did lead to a 'war on Islam,' as many people in Muslim nations have convinced themselves, then someone forgot to tell the New Yorkers. For final proof that this City is constantly conflicted while perennially open-minded comes right by the entrance to that same subway, at the very corner of 4th Avenue and Atlantic Avenue. There the local New York Army National Guard center sits above an Islamic supplies store. It's an incongrous sight when you stop to think about it, but no on ever does. They're too busy going about their daily lives, living like real New Yorkers, shoulder to shoulder, cheek to jowl, barely paying attention to their neighbor's skin tone, dress or religious text. That, as the clothing store down the street will tell you, is why it's called the Melting Pot. And hopefully, by September of next year, those daily lives in the Melting Pot will be back to enough semblance of normality that we can once again welcome the Atlantic Antic in all its multi-cultural glory with open wallets, empty stomachs and frisky feet. I've missed it.
TUESDAY OCTOBER 21, 2002
YOU CAN'T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER
But if you wanted a true idea of my life on a day to day basis, you could certainly get it by going through my mail. Here's Monday's:
A letter addressed to 'Jamming!' from France. I remember how excited about foreign-stamped envelopes I was when I first did Jamming! as a print mag. I feel some of that old curiosity opening this one up; all contact these days usually comes across the modem or phone lines. Turns out it's from the Count d'Estutt d'Assay at Château de Tracy in Pouilly Fume. If you read my Wine Round Up, you'd know I made his acquaintance at the Winebow tasting last month. A true gentleman (he's a real Count), d'Assay (as I like to call him) has written to say, "it goes without saying that we will be very pleased to receive you in Tracy during your next trip to France." Well, now it does any way. James, book the flight would you? First class, naturally. There's a good butler. (Facetiousness aside, next time I'm the Loire and I've been there before I'm taking him at his word.)
. . .What else? A letter from American Express informing me that I've been 'Pre-Approved for American Express Card membership.' Followed immediately by the assurance that 'pre-approved status is not easily achieved.' Maybe not, but seeing as I've been a 'Cardholder Since 1994', I find 'that'll do nicely' as a piece of sales pitch bull shit. I can only assume Amex is so desperate that no one checks current card holders against possible future card holders. . .
. . .And look here. Another letter from American Express, this one informing me that I can get double miles on all purchases on my gold card starting November 1. They really are desperate. But at least this one will do nicely, sir. (As in, of course I've got a gold card; you don't think they don't give those away like heroin at the school gates also?)
. . .A letter from Verisign with the account number for my web domain. It assures me I'll get a password in a separate letter within two weeks. Actually I got the password in a separate letter last Friday and spent 30 minutes trying to find the other letter that that letter assured me I had received two weeks ago. If you follow. Which I certainly didn't at the time
.. . .The mortgage statement. I'm never sure if that's good news or bad news. . .
. . .And just one press release by snail mail. Time was when every day brought a dozen envelopes full of breaking news like 'Mariah Carey's new album ships double-platinum.' Now all that info comes by e-mail. Bless Dreamworks then, that 21st Century company founded by those forward thinkers Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen for still relying on the Post Office to inform me that
The 'La Boheme' Broadway Cast Recording is due December 10.' Well, hold the front page. That news was worth chopping trees down for, wasn't it?. . .
. . .And of course, music. Where would my day be without more new music? (Probably spent catching up on the old new music.) Today's pile is typically eclectic. There's what once would have been called a 'concept album' by Downpore, entitled Portrait of A Sideshow Freak (which was number one most requested on Staten Island College radio in the first week of August, they'll have you know.) There's a second copy of the Donnas' new album (plus Bonus DVD featuring 'Band Interview with Andy Dick') called Spend The Night. The cover is a brilliant 70s satire, all soft porn dorm room come-on. (The back cover shows a passed-out boy on the floor. Did he get laid? By all of them? Or are they just a bunch of teases?) There's a finished copy of Simiam's We Are Your Friends, part of Astralwerks' highly noticeable shift away from electronica into indie rock; it's a good album, even better for coming in a Buzzcocks circa 1978 shockingly bright yellow cover. There's the intriguing looking Vale Callampa by Café Tacuba, the extensive Spanish sleeve notes of which have me checking the press release for further info. I find I'm holding an EP by "the acclaimed Mexican foursome" big fans of The Cure, it says here - which is actually all cover versions of songs by a recently disbanded Chilean trio called Los Tres. (At least I assume it was a trio. Wasn't there a Mexican band called El Tri? How about if they covered Los Tres?) My mind immediately gets to thinking 'recommended Chilean wine with a Tequila chaser.' (After the Marathon, though, not before.) Obligatory rap release: From Tha Rooter to That Tooter by Field Mob. Seems like they're from the South. One track is called 'It's H***'. I can't think of a four-letter unrepeatable word that begins with H? Can you?
|The Donnas: tease
||Simiam: Buzzcocks 78
||Sugarcult: A winner
. . .And finally, what's this? Another copy of Sugarcult's debut album Start Static. Didn't I write about this record over a year ago? Yes I did. And they've been through three publicists since then. Which might explain why I'm onto my fourth copy of the record. But if you've checked here enough, you'll know I love Sugarcult, so I'm thrilled to hear that the album is still being pushed, even though it has now "sold more than 200,000 copies" (and that's before counting the four copies every music journalist in America must be using as coasters). Even better, they've done it the old-fashioned way: 200 gigs a year, heavy rotation at MTV2 (which I don't have at home, so I have to take peoples word on that), pin up looks, excellent choice in cover versions ('No Action' by Elvis Costello), and changing the lyrics when they sound inappropriate in the wake of September 11. Don't worry boys, in your shoes, in that particular circumstance, I'd have done the same thing. Here's hoping you go gold without signing to a major. And for once, I'm glad to know I backed a winner.
MONDAY OCTOBER 21 2002
YOU BRING LIGHT IN
I have to admit, I had some trepidation. They're touring as a duo for the first time ever, and who was to really know how that change in line-up might affect the on stage dynamic? The new album, A Hundred Days Off, which would be hailed as breathtakingly brilliant were it to come from any band without such an incredibly strong track record, still sounds just a little too restrained to be rated on par with its immediate predecessors. Most unnervingly, the three or four Underworld shows I've witnessed in the past have been so tremendously inspiring, so frighteningly transcendent - quite simply, among the best concerns experiences of my life - that I dared not expect such majesty again.
But on Friday night at the Hammerstein Ballroom, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith pulled out all the emotional registers for an Underworld show that seemed to leave their past New York performances behind in the dust. Over the course of two and a half hours, they delivered a typically eclectic set list that included hit singles, cult classics and new anthems in equal proportions; they performed off-the-cuff jams both up tempo and down; they vibed off the crowd's excitement just as much as the audience drew from the onstage energy; and they paced the show with the perfection of great DJs, knowing just when to push the pace, and exactly when to pull it back.
Watching him move so sensually, so gracefully, so energetically and euphorically, it's hard to believe Karl Hyde is now 45 years old
That last comment makes clear that Darren Emerson's departure, sad though it may be, is not a setback. Indeed, there will be those left scratching their heads as to what he contributed in the past, apart from legendary 'vibe,' which should - seriously - never be underestimated. (Nor should it be questioned that Underworld circa 1991 would have been totally lost without Emerson's then vital musical input.) There were other visual differences Friday night apart from the loss of an onstage body. The familiar "live Tomato jam" in which song lyrics and other imagery would be projected onto the back of the stage in approximate timing with Karl's singing, has gone. And it hasn't been replaced: as Karl suggested might be the case in his interview for iJamming!, he opted to do without any interactivity rather than hinder his on stage spontaneity. The final visual change was for nerds only: the two new sound boards of which Karl also referred in the interview took center stage (I spotted what looked like a Nord Lead sandwiched between them), and again as Karl intimated, the change in system caused the occasional onstage splutter. More of that later.
There's a tendency among rock fans (whose heroes often adhere to the same songs night after night), to believe that any "electronic"-based act works off pre determined set lists - or, worse, that because it doesn't emanate from guitars and drums, the entire concert must be on 'tape' and therefore unalterable. Quite apart from Underworld's ability to adlib onstage as liberally as any jam band (witness Karl's inspired guitar work on the lengthy rendition of 'Twist', or the mutated and extended rendition of 'Mo Move'), the duo thrives on mixing it up night after night. I came to the gig armed with set lists from two of the American shows earlier in the week; there was correlation, certainly, but the order was radically changed and there were several examples of songs introduced and others dropped.
Stage props included some screen projections at the beginning and end, and the occasional mutated video of Karl singing; on 'Mo Move', Karl positioned himself in front of a kaleidoscopic light; and for 'Dark Train' a simple green laser tunnel (see right) proved deliriously effective. But for the most part, effects were unnecessary. All eyes were on Karl, who filled every inch of the stage and worked up every last corner of the crowd without ever stooping to conventional star banter. Watching him move so sensually, so gracefully, so energetically and euphorically, it was hard to believe he's now 45 years old. I honestly don't think there's a performer in modern music to compare with him.
The decision at Hammerstein to open with 'Mmm Skyscraper I Love You' may well have been in tribute to its inspiration, New York City, for after subsequently hitting us hard with 'Cowgirl'/'Rez', Karl then back announced the last single 'Two Months Off,' by stating "New York's given us some fantastic lyrics, and some pretty sad ones too...That's one of them." I can't believe he meant to imply that 'Two Months Off' is sad; I'll take it instead that he simply meant it was inspired by this city. On that note, I have to stress that while New York has often gained a reputation as a hard audience to please, I've noted over the years that when it comes to techno acts (and, interestingly, trip-hop ones too), this city hosts one of the most enthusiastic and passionate crowds I can imagine. With regard to Friday night's reception, there was an obvious reason: looking round the audience from a variety of positions in the ballroom, and noticing how we've all aged over the course of a post-rave decade, it was clear how many people here had grown up with Underworld. This crowd's emotional attachment to their heroes is therefore no less powerful than for someone who grew up with equally dynamic live acts like The Who, U2 or Bruce Springsteen, and proof of their long-term involvement was evidenced by the hysterical reaction to older songs like 'Dirty Epic' ("here comes Christ on crutches") and 'Dark Train.'
And Rick Smith? Rick spent the night controlling the music, dropping instruments in and out, elongating sequences, occasionally playing with EQs and frequently stripping tracks to their rhythmic basics, such as with the lengthy introduction to 'Jumbo.' At times he was even relaxed enough to be seen bopping up and down. When not singing or playing guitar, Karl joined him at the boards, most noticeably to mix 'Born Slippy' so loud that even those with their arms in the air had to find fingers to stick in their ears. It was as powerful a rendition as I think I've heard from them, and rather than leave the set there, as one might have expected, they followed with 'Push Upstairs,' before returning for a double encore of 'Pearl's Girl' and 'Moaner.'
It was almost one song too many: the onstage board spluttered and spat its way through the intro, Rick doing his best to restart the track in time to its accidental drop-outs. At the song's conclusion, the board appeared, to all intents and purposes, to blow out completely - but Smith was smart enough to smile wryly and cut his losses. I suspect that many in the audience figured that final eruption to be the part of the act, anyway: besides, it was now one in the morning, and even though Karl had to search around for a functioning microphone to issue thanks for the ecstatic audience interaction, it had been a phenomenal night, one for the history books.
I was fortunate enough to get a photo pass for Friday's Underworld show. You can see more pictures here
. The interview with Karl Hyde is here.
Watching Underworld perform as a duo for the first time, I was struck not just as to how much Rick and Karl vibe off each other, but how much they need each other. Rick Smith is a phenomenal producer, the kind of computer geek you look up to in awe, but he;d surely struggle to find an audience left to his own instrumental (and insular?) devices. Karl, meanwhile, is a performer, singer, guitar player and poet par excellence, but his deliberately jumbled lyrics and borderline exhibitionism would seem less revolutionary if not set to equally inspiring music. Orbital may be brothers by birth, and the Chemicals Brothers by name, but Rick and Karl, after 22 years together, are brothers by nature - and the hugs they exchanged at times during this two and a half hour extravaganza proved, once more, that the greatest live shows start from the heart.
SUNDAY OCTOBER 20 2002
MUSIC MUSIC MUSIC
The Negatives, Bill Nelson's Red Noise, Pale Fountains, Tom Petty, Purple Hearts, Iggy Pop, Spizz Energi, Speedball, The Specials, Squeeze, Soft Cell, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Scritti Politti, Rudi, R.E.M., Rolling Stones, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers....Just some of the acts on an old compilation tape I ran to today. One of the better things about this Marathon Training is that I prefer the Walkman to the portable CD, and seeing as basically no one releases music on cassette anymore, I've been forced to dig back into my boxes of old mixes to keep the music varied. Every now and then my past taste embarrasses me, but not this time. Even the cheesy tracks still sounded good in their own cheesy way. Love it love it love it.
Mind you, I needed the uplift after embarking on the annual CD clear out. So much music to sort through it's painful. I often figure it's easier just to keep albums than have to go back and listen to them more than once, but I simply have no space for mediocrity. (Literally even more so than metaphorically.) So Mest, Moths, Marasma - and you're just among the Ms - it's into the Thrift Store box you go.
SATURDAY OCTOBER 19 2002
I NEED YOU
One of the more popular song titles out there. (The Jam's version still rules: how can anyone lambast an album that contains such a beautiful song?) Last Saturday, I put out a call for help with this web-site,and a few of you bravely responded. But we're getting new readers all the time, so I'm continuing with the recruiting pitch. If you like what you see and read here, and want more of it, or at least for me to post the things I keep promising faster, then let me know if you're willing to: 1) Help transcribe interviews so I can take on more of them. (This is the most important task.) 2) Help edit manuscripts (some experience in that field is needed.) 3) Offer design assistance to make the site a little flashier without losing its easy-going readability. Thank you. Lots to come in the next week, so keep checking in.