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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”?
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.
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!