News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Equalizer: Live At The Bass Drop
BY JONAS BEALS
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
The drunk guy standing next to me focused on the jam band’s lighting director, a fellow who furiously tapped computer monitors, adjusted sliders and turned knobs as if he were fighting off an army of tiny, invisible ninjas with his fingers. After observing this activity for a few minutes, and occasionally glancing at the colorful, spinning, strobing results onstage, Mr. Drunk raised a reasonable question, which I will alter slightly in order to please the censors.
“Can you even [screw] this up?” he screamed at the lighting guy.
I’ve had similar thoughts while observing the latest crop of hot dance-music DJs, most of whom have eschewed the classic “two turntables and a microphone” setup in favor of a MacBook computer.
I saw MiMOSA, a popular Los Angeles club DJ, take the stage, plug in his laptop and tap out a few clicks to get the music flowing. Then he stepped back and did a little fist-pumping. After about an hour that included a few more mouse clicks and knob twists, he closed the lid of his laptop, unplugged it and walked off the stage.
I considered having a few more beers and yelling at him as if he were a lighting director.
I know this makes me sound old or at least old-fashioned, which I may be, but there is something about computer-aided DJing that raises red flags. I have nothing against dubstep, house, techno or dance music of any kind, and I was rather fond of some of the electronic music that pumped out of underground clubs the last time DJs threatened to eclipse rock ’n’ roll in popularity. That was the mid-’90s, and there were raves popping up everywhere, each focused on a DJ thumbing through record crates and mixing tracks between two turntables. Even if the DJ wasn’t a scratch-happy turntablist, there was still an element of suspense and physicality as he flipped discs, faded mixes and cued up the next track. While there was still time for a fair amount of fist-pumping, there wasn’t a computer in sight.
At its base, the distinction is academic. Whether using vinyl records or digital music files, DJs are playing other people’s music in what is likely a practiced, predetermined order.
So why do I feel the whole process loses creativity and credibility when a computer is involved?
It’s a trust issue related to the “black box” aspect of the digital machine. Today’s DJs may be doing the same cueing, fading and mixing as their counterparts 20 years ago, but you just can’t see it happening. In fact, there isn’t any evidence to prove the mixing wasn’t done months ago and recorded.mIf that were true, there would still be plenty of skill involved, but it’s not the same visceral thrill as watching the live action.
Maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe what DJs do is more important than how they do it. They bring the party, get people dancing and, well, that’s all they need to do. I suppose pushing “Play” on a computer plugged into some speakers can do that as well as anything.
And yet there are superstar DJs like Skrilex, Deadmau5 and Girl Talk, all known for their live performances, where all of them stand behind computers and fist-pump.
What they don’t have is an obvious element of risk—something that is a significant contributing factor toward making most live music vibrant and compelling art. Making music without a net leads to the occasional thrilling mistake, or at least the possibility of something going off the rails. That’s not the way computers work—they are a pretty reliable safety net, as long as the battery holds out.
And can something be all that impressive if you can’t even screw it up?
JONAS’ IN-TOWN PICK: Big Daddy Love at the Otter House. This progressive band plays bluegrass-tinged “Appalachian rock” from the hills of North Carolina. Saturday at 10 p.m.
OUT-OF-TOWN PICK: DMX at The National in Richmond. Do you miss the truly hardcore gangsta rap of the ’90s? Well, here’s one of the best of the genre, barking out the hits for all the ruff ryders out there. Tuesday at 8 p.m.
LISTENING TO: “Pop Goes the World” by Men Without Hats. Usually considered one-hit wonders for “Safety Dance,” the band also has this other hit song, a catchy bit of sunny ’80s ephemera.
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036