April 23, 2002

Former subculture icons fail to overcome weight of success

Last Saturday witnessed the gathering of some of the biggest names in dance music—Paul Oakenfold, the Chemical Brothers, and Sasha and John Digweed. The event was billed as a dance-athon, with "8 continuous hours of world-class dance music." While the show started two hours late due to the ridiculous security, the six remaining hours proved to be more than enough. True to advertising, the music was for the most part world-class, but what the flyer failed to emphasize was the impossibility of having a good time at the Allstate Arena due to the all-around lameness of the organizers and the audience.

Let it be known that the Allstate Arena su-u-u-ucks. I don't know who signed off on the idea of not letting kids have fun anymore. But I should have suspected that the petition passed around by sensationalist mass-media outlets over the last few years has been very popular with the humble, upstanding citizens of Rosemont, whose hearts fill with fear at the prospect of their rebellious progeny casting away their under-appreciated hard-won rights to hedge-trimming and button-pushing. To the point of ID-ing and thoroughly searching every single person who came in, stationing piles of officers in the closed-off upper level to peer down into the relatively small crowd and rumble down the stairs every ten minutes to shine their flashlights both indiscriminately and with the aim of harassing kids who were using their seats in unauthorized ways (typically sitting on the backrest.)

Typical of the whole attitude was my entranced experience. Because of the absurd measures employed, a line of thousands of persons dressed in dance clothes stood in brutal wind and sub-40 temps, waiting to be authorized for entry. Although I arrived relatively early, it still took me 1.5 hours to get to the sanitization area, where I was threatened with access denial for brandishing a passport rather than a "state-issued photo ID." After some hassle, the officer let me through, but the point is that something that should have taken five seconds took an order of magnitude longer; meanwhile thousands continued to freeze their asses off, and show time was further delayed.

To minimize the realism and emotional intensity of the flashback, let me just say that the drugs were confiscated by the Arena security. Considering the national holiday 4/20, this was A Most Unfortunate Occurrence. My optimism continued to drop as I realized the closest I would come to my roommate's prediction of "licking drugs off the belly of some 16 year old" was witnessing the obviously rolling-for-the-first-time guy in his late twenties fail miserably at dancing/making out with his girlfriend, to the point where she was actively pushing him away towards the end of the show. Unfortunately, the seating arrangement made avoiding annoying people, and dancing for that matter, difficult.

Oakenfold was the first to come on and was enthusiastically greeted by the impatient and long-suffering crowd. They were eager to get into it and receptive to the opening track. Then he dropped "Everything In Its Right Place" by Radiohead. It was definitely his most sensible interpretation, but the audience seemed stunned/confused. Unfortunately that was to be his only foray into something fresh, immediately followed by a circa-1997 anthem. A procession of big, crowd-pleasing tunes followed in typical Oakenfold fashion—little in the way of transitions but effectively sequenced and with enough manipulation to keep the crowd interested. If you're into that sort of thing, it's probably better-enjoyed in the comfort of your own home.

At the conclusion of Oakenfold's set, Sasha and Digweed began playing on the opposite stage. It was immediately obvious who would be the badasses of the night as their Phazon sound system swung into action, which coupled with the house PA set up at the first stage to provide pretty good stereo and awesome sound. It's one of those classy details that set the two apart from their contemporaries. The difference in experience was immediately noticeable as they started their set in typical trance fashion, with echoing sweeps making their way from side to side. But they wasted little time in building up to a solid groove, which proceeded to magically morph and shift in a steady and intensifying fashion. It was classic Sasha and Digweed—liquid rhythms framed by haunting melodic fragments. Their achievement of a simultaneously minimalist and vibrant sound represents the dawn of a new era in trance, for it is made possible by a mixing technique that goes beyond the Oakenfold model of working at the track level.

Oakenfold made his reputation by selecting songs in a suitable order and inventing some simple devices to switch between them and employing a few standard models for climaxes at the structural level. Sasha, Digweed, and their contemporaries, those who brought trance to its peak in 1999, improved on this by augmenting their more sophisticated gimmicks for building crescendos and switching between tracks with increased attention to track selection and integration, resulting in a smoother and livelier mix. Sasha and Digweed seem to have made the leap, completely decomposing the sound on the vinyl and rebuilding the sound from the ground up, allowing for drastically increased expressiveness and cohesion at the level of the entire mix.

One theory is that this is made possible by their bunker-like stage, which seems like it could withstand a small detonation in the audience area. The separation the from the audience would allow them to spend more brain cycles on the mixing rather than the dancing and arm waving required by the audience of the more exposed acts.

The set suddenly stopped about twenty minutes into the display of mastery. The Chemical Brothers appeared on the other stage, which in the meantime had been reset. The crowd went nuts as their senses were assaulted with aggressive, punchy high-tempo beats and whirly screechy beeps and bleeps. I was impressed…for the first fifteen minutes. Then I realized that I couldn't really tell what was going on. Perhaps I lack the ability to parse their grammar, but to me all the sudden lulls, changes, and bursts of noise started to blend together, and by the end of their two-hour set, they had become tiresome. While they had some innovative approaches and well-crafted sounds, it takes more than that to make a good live show—unless you have the attention span of a fruit fly. Clearly to enjoy this sort of thing you must be on lots of drugs and perhaps in a more social situation, and, well, you already know what happened to that.

At around midnight Sasha and Digweed (and stereo sound) returned. After the blasting unleashed by the Chemical Brothers my ears were rather fatigued. Most of the people seem to have come for the Brothers, and with four hours of electronica under their belt and an obvious dearth of "refreshments," they too seemed like they were petering out. The duo continued to play through the somewhat ambivalent crowd for two hours, trying desperately to get them worked up, but seemingly nothing was working. Nevertheless it was enjoyable to just kick back and watch them at work, particularly as a tandem. While Sasha hasn't released an album in over three years, Digweed has put out a series of increasingly experimental, minimalist records that have really pushed the boundaries of the genre. My main motivation for coming was to see how Sasha would evolve his sense for melody and drama in response to Digweed's intense rhythmic architecture. It seems that Sasha himself has been mesmerized by the apocalyptic vision laid out in Digweed's Global Underground 19: Los Angeles; if you heard their performance of New Year's 2002 on MTV2, you must have noted its stark lack of melodic flurries in favor of a heavy excursion into intensity. But on this night Sasha was back in full force, and their combined sound incorporated the best both had to offer.

On their own, the acts were all worthwhile at some price point for some audience. But more so than with your average concert, one goes to these shows for more than just the music. Trance is significant, for it reminds us that the music and society are intimately connected by the fact that the perception and experience of each affects that of the other in an almost non-decomposable dialectic. Stripped of its meaning, it dwindles to repetitive cheesiness or boredom and exhaustion, as was the case on Saturday. So the $50 was an unreasonable price to pay for the entire experience. At a club, it would have been magic. But at the Allstate Arena, it was just so-so.