A year ago I reviewed Future Classic's Beck's Festival Bar event at the Sydney Festival, leaving pleased but somewhat underwhelmed (here or here). But with Trevor Jackson headlining in 2010 I snapped up tickets as early as the Festival presale last year, long before Vito DeLuca of Belgian duo Aeroplane was announced as support.
Jackson played a vital role in the development of my interest in music outside the house spectrum, especially when I heard Morgan Geist's flawless (yet rough around the edges) revision of The Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers", an early DFA release distributed also on Jackson's seminal Output label. I still remember the first time I heard it, played in an early set by local DJ Michael X at the influential techno night, Crunch, in 2002. The sudden explosion of horns on the background of a gritty, jarring punk-funk rhythm was like nothing I'd heard before, and yet at one with my youthful attraction to the melding of post-disco and post-punk sensibilities in early 1980s NYC.
What Jackson, who always seems to have pursued tougher sounds, was doing associated with Future Classic I wasn't quite sure at the time. And yet when I thought about it, despite the label's glossier and more melodic vibe (even when releasing techier fare), FC has always connected with artists and DJs who are edgier than the mainstream of house and nu-disco. There are good reasons why FC is one of Australia's best electronic labels when they wear influences like those on their sleeves.
Before Jackson made it onto the main stage, a somewhat empty venue got to experience Yen, who managed to pique my interest with their mash of psyche-rock, Balearica and sweet pop. But while they played well, and had good ideas and interesting hooks, these locals never quite took off. It was, as one of my friends commented, a band in need of a good producer to bring out their best.
Following Yen, FC boss Nathan McLay played a set much like he did at last year's event: a series of what seemed like his big tracks and personal favourites of recent times, undercut by an unfortunate lack of flow. As he did, though, hundreds more people filled the Hyde Park Barracks venue, leaving it comfortably full and another popular success.
But within minutes of Trevor Jackson placing a needle on Traktor timecode vinyl any hiccups or disappointments on the night were quickly forgiven. Well, almost, as his first track (by Yacht) skipped twice because the subs under stage were heaving from its searing kick and bass.
In the next two hours Jackson delivered on the promise embodied in his legend. Only recently having restarted touring as a jock, and already having starred at such respectable clubs as NYC's Guggenheim Museum (don't laugh, the DFA crew tore apart MoMA a few years ago), he skilfully negotiated modern punk-funk, dubby deep house (John Daly's instant classic "This Is A Lonely Beat"), string-laden techno, snippets of old disco and italo (a cheeky line from "Funkytown" included), modern leftfield house (Noze) and even a cheesy pop classic (the restrained Bitshit re-edit of "Love Shack").
It was a vibe that allowed throbbing eighties electro-funk to consummate its long hidden love affair with glitchy, bleepy noughties tech-house. Smashing through tune after tune (his basic digital set-up seems to have given him the freedom to only play the best bits of tracks) there were occasional mixes that needed minimal technical skill but paid off in subtle or startling mood-shifts. Once again earning his reputation as a connoisseur, Jackson's set-list was only amenable to a smattering of trainspotting (what on earth was that crackling, heavy technoid take on the "Nutcracker Suite", anyway?) but that didn't stop it winning in the "hips" department—by God, this was music to dance to, and keep dancing to.
With DeLuca at the side of the stage itching to get on, Jackson raised an index finger to him as if to say "one more" and then dropped the heavenly Joakim re-edit of Severed Heads' "Dead Eyes Opened". It was a perfect finish to a brilliant and inspired set, one which read the crowd without for one second surrendering to it.
To follow such brilliance would be hard even for the most experienced of DJs, but Vito DeLuca was always known as the more studio boffin member of the Aeroplane team and it seems that he has only recently started DJing on a big scale. This came across with his hesitant and sometimes messy transitions, but with the venue filling up again after the gates were thrown open from 11.30pm (as is Beck's tradition) and the average age of punters dropping by at least 10 years he banged out an unashamedly populist selection.
In fact, for all my jokes about Aeroplane (the duo) inventing "Rave Balearica" as a new subgenre during their larger-than-life performance at last year's Parklife, DeLuca went further—mixing hyper-melodic italo with euphoria-inducing poppy nu-disco and one-dimensional French electro for an overall effect that one punter described to me as "Bang Gang, only softer". In amongst it all were some faster-paced Aeroplane hits (remixes of The Shortwave Set and Friendly Fires), storming French fare (Sebastien Tellier) and overt pop (Florence + The Machine).
The kids were loving it, but it was a case of "never mind the quality, feel the width" with some of the tracks, and a far cry from the subtle and at times devastatingly emotive qualities of the Belgians' own productions. It was only when the glorious Ewan Pearson re-rub of Junior Boys' "Hazel" filtered up through the mix that things seemed to be turned right. Yet for all the limitations of DeLuca's set, he was clearly enjoying it and connecting with the Friday night mood.
Unlike last year where I felt let down by uninspired performances from great talents, this year Trevor Jackson sealed the deal so well that nothing else could stain my appreciation of the night. Like festivals per se, the Beck's Bar is always something of a mixed bag. But Future Classic have delivered a truly superior mixed bag this time around. Great stuff!