We Love Music: Underworld @ 9:30 Club 10/25/10

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All photos by Andrew Markowitz.

Okay DC, just this once I’m going to say I told you so. I mean, I tried so hard to get y’all to go to this I even gave away tickets for it. If you are a fan of electronic music and you skipped Underworld on Monday night, even after all my prodding, then there really is no hope for ya.

Underworld
came, saw, and conquered at the 9:30 Club on Monday night with a rare club show that made the other “Best Electronic Concert” contenders of 2010 look like a bunch of chumps.* Their show on Monday was operating on an entirely different level from their peers. It was a techno-poetic dream and irresistible beat factory all-in-one. I have been telling my friends and family that 2010 is in the running for the most impressive year of live music of my life, and that if Underworld were to magically be scheduled to play 9:30 Club this year, then that would be the topper. Well guess what folks? It happened and Underworld’s amazing 9:30 Club performance put 2010 right over the top to officially be the best year of live music EVER!

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Now if you read my write-ups regularly, you have probably noticed by now that I can get pretty excited when it comes to writing about a great show. Well, Underworld’s club set was one of the best of the year and I don’t even know where to begin to convey how soul encompassing their huge, beautiful, manic sound was on Monday night. Seeing Underworld perform at 9:30 Club has been one of my wish-list artist/venue pairings for years and to finally see them there was a real dream come true for me. Their two hour set far exceeded my high expectations and even surpassed the hype I had instilled in all of the people I had convinced to go with me. It was all dance-sweat and smiles as we high-fived before parting ways after the show.

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In the weeks leading up to this show, full of my incessant babbling about it, I was shocked to discover how many people do not know who Underworld are. I assured them that if they heard any number of their classic electronica hits they would instantly recognize their music. Underworld have been a major force in electronic dance music and particularly its live performance for twenty years. Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have been the core of the group that is known for its sprawling dance labyrinths full of stream-of-consciousness lyrics. A lot of hay has been made about the departure of a third member, Darren Emerson, about 10 years ago but honestly I think most of the writing complaining about that is intended to sell copy rather than to really comment on Underworld’s quality. Their live shows have only been perfected in the decade since Emerson left. Darren Price has filled in ably as the third pair of hands for years now.

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I have seen Underworld three times before. All three times were with massive crowds and have been bug-nuts crazy. Underworld are masters of mass crowd dance manipulation and their huge sound was awe inspiring to hear echoing off the walls of Giants Stadium at Field Day Fest, or off of the trees of New York’s Central Park. At Field Day it was an especially insane experience; it was during a torrential downpour and thousands of fans were raving-out in full rain ponchos on top of weird plastic field-protecting planks. The floor covering the playing field bounced up and down under the dancing feet of a thousand rain-doused ravers. These Underworld shows rank as some of the most fun concerts I have ever attended. Being part of a crowd-mass whipped into a frenzy by Hyde’s mile-a-minute vocals and Smith’s massive big beats is a cherished memory. For years, I could only imagine what it would be like to see Underworld bring their dance nation anthems into an intimate performance space. On Monday night I finally found out.

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The only thing Underworld pared down from their festival headlining shows to fit into the 9:30 Club was their stage set-up; they went with a rather spare grid-wall of lights back-drop that was occasionally covered by a cloth screen to show off some pre-produced videos, a live handy-cam feed from the stage, and Hyde’s giant projected dancing shadow. Underworld’s huge stadium sound was as big as ever filling the 9:30 Club with pristine techno sound effects and quaking organ bass. Their music sounded great on the 9:30 Club’s sound-system, surrounding the audience in a force-field of living sound. You could feel the music making the hairs on your arm dance and see its rhythmic body-moving effect wash over the crowd like tidal wave.

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Karl Hyde is the best front man the world of electronica has ever produced. His flawless voice soars over Smith’s electronic rush with a mix of hushed conversational tones, manic slam-poet delivery, and swinging for the bleachers vocal heroics. Hyde’s vocals were mesmerizing on Monday night. When he howled “and it’s okay…” during ‘Scribble’ all that was wrong with the world suddenly was and a curtain of techno-fueled escapism blocked out the world completely. Hyde’s slinky body snaked around the stage in non-stop motion, hands aloft directing the audience’s energy like a maestro. His energy was as infectious as his incredible positive attitude. Hyde is one of the happiest performers I have ever seen and his huge smile, twinkling eyes, and general physical silliness instilled a regime of happiness in the club that cracked a smile on the faces of even the most cynical or stoic concert-goer.

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Underworld put together a set list of thirteen songs that was split pretty evenly between newer material (heavily featuring their latest album “Barking”) and live interpretations of some of their classics.** ‘Shudder/King of Snake’ served up the pinnacle of dance insanity for the night; as it usually does.*** The new songs blended seamlessly with the older canon. ‘Scribble’, ‘Bird 1′, and ‘Between Stars’ all sounded fantastic. For their encore Hyde and Smith dusted off an ancient classic in ‘Dirty Epic’, which was as seductive and deceptively subdued as ever. I was thrilled to hear this live. I have never seen it performed before and it is the song that introduced me to the band. Does anyone else remember “Afterburn: Wax Trax! Records ’94 and Beyond”?

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To close out the night they unleashed ‘Moaner’. I have a pretty great live recording of ‘Moaner’ from a concert Underworld performed at the request of legendary British DJ John Peel. That recording of ‘Moaner’ is my prized Underworld possession; it captures the all-encompassing intensity, high energy, and joy of an Underworld show better than their entire “Everything, Everything” live album does.**** Their performance of ‘Moaner’ on Monday night was the pitch perfect climax to this legendary performance. It was my ‘Moaner’ Peel recording come to life. Hyde became possessed, dancing and singing on a riser behind the impressive array of electro-gear. His vocal performance on this song was full of maniacal glee as he spit out machine-gun vocals on full-auto. In front of him Smith and Price unleashed their most powerful dance onslaught of the evening, not so much inspiring the audience to dance as it was physically dribbling them like a basketball. ‘Moaner’ was Underworld at their most aggressive and brilliant. By set’s end the audience was drenched with sweat and energy-spent. The perfect ending to one of the best concerts in a year full of greatness.

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I encourage everyone to check out Andrew’s full photo-set. He got some really remarkable shots of this show!

* Deadmau5 and his incredibly impressive and incredibly expensive set pieces don’t compare to the best stage effect of all: Karl Hyde.

** ‘Born Slippy Nuxx’ got a particularly cool breakbeat change-up.

*** Underworld’s 2007 performance of ‘Shudder/King of Snake’ in New York City’s Central Park was one of the most off-the-chain, crazy things I’ve ever seen.

**** Don’t get me wrong though, ‘Everything, Everything’ is one of the best live albums around. Highly Recommended!

Michael splits his free time between defending the little guy and championing the underdog. He has been haunting the concert halls, dive bars, and greasy spoons of DC for the last 16 years. His interests include live rock music, researching obscure military/political conflicts, and good hamburgers. He is a friendly grump, has wisdom beyond his years, and is on a life-long quest to attain music nirvana. Follow him on Twitter if you dare!

12 thoughts on “We Love Music: Underworld @ 9:30 Club 10/25/10

  1. Michael –

    I have a question. I do not particularly like electronica, and I rarely dance (and dance like a statue when I do). Would a person such as myself have enjoyed this concert? I did not even try to get free tickets from you or from another site, figuring that I would not like it and having never heard of them.
    The reason I ask is that I sometimes think that even if I am not fond of a particular musical style, it might be worth checking out a performer who is said to be the best of that style – perhaps what I have heard by other performers was just the wrong stuff. Other recent shows that come to mind as examples of this would include Robyn and Public Enemy. I don’t want to drag myself out of the house for what might be a wasted evening, but I’m certainly willing to have my horizons expanded and be relieved of my ignorance.

    So, what are the odds that a person such as I have described would have enjoyed Underworld? Thanks in advance for any feedback you might care to provide.

    PaulO

  2. Those pictures totally suck. 114 pics of the same guy? How about some pics of the crowd, 9:30, the setting…I mean, for 114 pics about 110 are of the same t-shirt.

    LAME!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. @PaulO, I brought a buddy who has never heard of Underworld and he was estatic during and after the show. He mainly listens to singer/songwriter types, but also likes to get his groove on.

    Michael, Moaner almost had me collapse on the floor from all the energy it took out of me. Well worth it!

  4. @Rawhide – For most shows photographers are instructed not to shoot the crowd.

    @PaulO – The best of a genre is almost always worth checking out. They get to the top for good reasons. I wouldn’t sweat not dancing, people are paying attention to the band, not criticizing each others moves. :)

    @Lee I also took someone unfamiliar and not really an electronica fan and he had a brain meltdown after the show about how amazing it was.

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  6. @Rawhide – I don’t know, it seems like people taking the time to read concert reviews on a DC-focused website probably know what the 9:30 Club looks like. Which, during a show, is a big, dark room. (Which I think is part of why 9:30 works so well as a venue- it doesn’t get between you and the show like DAR does.)

    I do not think photos of dark-painted walls, in the dark, would have added much. :)

  7. I had an amazing time at this concert. Even when muscled out of my dancing spot by a guy who then refused to shake any part of his body while constantly checking his blackberry. But I was so high on the happiness I didn’t care. Also, I brought a friend who didn’t know Underworld and he was bopping along in no time.

    Really, an awesomely fun time. Better than the last time I saw them. I just loved it when Hyde thanked the crowd for our energy and said they were “jet-lagged to bits”… you would never have known he was tired.

  8. 930 and electronica at a high note. Michael not only do I remember Dirty Epic was probably the first song that made me take a closer listen to Underworld (followed by Cowgirl, followed by…)

  9. i was terrified for the encore; Karl had put so much energy in to the show already i thought he’d collapse! what a machine that man is!

    crowd was awesome.

    saw some people getting incredible photos. the simple design really looked great on film.

  10. Is the CD for Crocodile still available? I had a copy but like a fool loaned it and haven’t seen it since.

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