Sunday, June 20, 2010

Night and day



So for those who have never been, what is Sonar By Night really like? Well, if you can imagine one of those massive aircraft-hangar-like exhibition halls where they hold car shows and the like, located in the 'burbs, filled with tens of thousands of wasted youth, with drink queues a mile long (first for your drink ticket and then the drink itself), bumper cars and food stalls, and a cheesy rave atmosphere.... well, there you have it. Except the quality of the music is always superior—straddling the cool end of current pop and EDM tastes as well as delving into the more experimental and obscure.

But like any festival, there is always too much time spent facing crowd crush to get between stages (luckily only three this year, whereas I seem to recall there were four when I first went), and making choices that mean you get to sample more than experience those acts you want to see. So here is my blow-by-blow account of the night I had, but there were so many other nights that could've been had.

First up I caught the end of Hot Chip, pushing their cheery pop-electronica sound in a slightly tougher and more dance-y direction than I was expecting. Following that I scooted over to check out Dubstep-meets-tech hero of the day, Joy Orbison. Tight mixing and interesting sounds, but with an MC who seemed to be unable to move much beyond "Hello Barcelona" and "This is Joy Orbison" in his vocal stylings.

Then it was off to catch the first bit of LCD Soundsystem's set. James Murphy looked resplendently shaggy in a creased white suit and belted out favourites from Sound Of Silver and the new album like "Us v Them" and "Drunk Girls". As I'm seeing LCD soon in Sydney I took the opportunity to check out the return of Richie Hawtin's alter-ego Plastikman. Now this was clearly one for the fans, accompanied not just by a fantastic light show but a dedicated iPhone app that streamed track names and times and even BPMs! It was solid, dependable acid house and techno, but I've gotta say it washed over me a bit. As someone once sang, "Is That All There Is?"

Then it was off to see Barcelona's John Talabot (not his real name—does anyone know who he really is?), whose sound would probably best be described as intense, trippy and distorted nu-disco. While he was only holding a relatively small crowd (a couple of thousand at most) this was interesting, emotive and trance-inducing DJing. Even when big, obvious disco samples rose in the mix there was a modern, techy edginess to them that was truly exciting (and groovy at the same time).

Back to see Dixon (of Berlin's Innervisions label), I was very happy to see he was pushing the darker edge of his sound, with big tribal beats and techno influences—all very appropriate for 3.30am. And a great lead-in to Booka Shade, also playing darker and less euphoric than when I've seen them before.

But as 5.30am rolled around it was time to stumble out the door and look for the SonarPro bus promised to those of us with "accreditations". But where the hell was it? Happily I took Option B and entered the very modern Metro station Europa I Fira. It was a fitting and humorous end to the night as many hundreds of truly wasted dancers sitting on the platform heard the first train of the morning approach, getting their feet and cheering as if they had just been hit with the end of a massive breakdown in the middle of an epic DJ set.


After an incredibly heavy six-hour sleep (could the jetlag finally be banished?) I headed out for the CCCB to catch the one last Sonar By Day act I wanted to see—Detroit's living legend Moodyman. Now this guy is an acquired taste. Last time I saw him, he performed behind a white sheet for the first 30 minutes of his set. This time it was a white towel draped over his head (pictured above). Characteristically, this was a performance that went well beyond playing records, with Mr Dixon Jr. engaging in between-track and during-track patter, much of it hilarious.

He started with a story about how the "lady at Customs" had looked at his records and said they were the biggest CDs she'd ever seen—and what sort of CD player does he own that plays them? And as if to prove the point one of the SL-1200s he was to play on had a fault and needed to be replaced, delaying the show by 10 minutes.

Now, trainspotting is not something you get to do at a Moodyman gig*; he tells you what most of the tracks are. And this being a daytime Sonar set, he stuck with a classic sound dominated by soul, funk, disco, new wave and some hip-hop. There were De La Soul and J Dilla, Fred Wesley, James Brown, BT Express, The Clash, The Whispers and even Nitzer Ebb. Finally he had to be prised off the decks after his all-too-brief 90 minutes, accompanied by the sunshine breaking through after a downpour in the early stages of his set. For all the tired, post-Sonar By Night refugees, this was the perfect metaphor for the way he'd lifted our spirits on a steamy afternoon.

*That said, he played the original track that Daniel Wang's "Free Lovin" is based on—with the weird Afro instrumentation—or maybe it was Danny's own version. Can anybody help?

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