Once in a Blue Moon
A full moon on a Friday night in springtime is a convergence of more than enough elements to get the party started. Add to that the presence of electronica and house legends at the sprawling concert arena Cow Palace, and you’ve got yourself the equivalent of a psychedelic indoor house party.
The Chemical Brothers + Paul Oakenfold + Peter Tong + Sasha + John Digweed
26 Apr 2002: Cow Palace San Francisco
It was billed as “Once in a Blue Moon” and heralded as the most talked about electronica concert in the Bay Area this year. With turntable heavyweights Sasha and John Digweed hailing from Wales, Paul Oakenfold, a pioneer of techno music in Britain and naturally, Manchester’s infamous creators of a dance-rock-rap fusion, the Chemical Brothers, it was one of those once in a lifetime events—the significance of which was not lost on thousands of glow stick and acid tab-toting dance fiends.
The five-hour event clearly belonged to Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, who kept the tradition of old school DJs alive by simply by swaying to the beat of their jazz, techno and hip-hop infusions and lifting their scrawny arms, beckoning the crowd to join them on their spastic musical journey. They were a refreshing change from the entertaining but non-charismatic Peter Tong or Oakenfold, causing a half-full arena to fill up to capacity—from the separate venue where Sasha and John Digweed thumped their brand of house music in a smaller space and a simple blue light, which felt a lot like a sweaty basement party sans the keg—in about three minutes.
Truth be told, techno and electronica have cult followings because, to value music without lyrical support, it takes an almost divine appreciation music as a statement. After all, music for popular consumption—you know, the songs that all sound the same that are cramped onto program lists at major radio stations?—tends to come with lyrics. But to their credit, the Chemical Brothers have been handling their business since 1989, so they knew how to keep the energy level up.
They began with a modest introduction and almost snuck on stage. Tom and Ed, the two guys who turned their boudoirs into recording studios, encased themselves in what looked like a half eggshell of a studio. The canvas of their enclosure, combined with a screen behind them, allowed for an intricate and beautiful light show to complement their hybrid sound. After opening with “Surrender”, the duo wasted no time getting to one of their more famous achievements, “Block Rockin’ Beats” from 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole. Creating the party-style kaleidoscope of sound they’re famous for, the Brothers huddled and grooved over their machines throughout their set, a backdrop of virtual stars and shimmying silhouettes serving as visual stimulation around them.
It was easy to see how the duo won over British and American audiences alike with their genre-leaping big beat to acid house to complex electronica albums—which were composed less individual songs than total out of body, out of mind experiences, with a style that can barely be described without a combination of adjectives and superlatives. “Hey Boy, Hey Girl”, for instance, was one of the few songs from the somewhat disappointing 1999 release Surrender featuring a vocal sample combined with trip-hop flavor and boom-bass inflections, which stood out in their collection. The same was true for the intense aural sensuality of “It Began in Afrika”—an acid house production filled with the flirtatious percussion and trance-inducing vocal samples coupled with a retro-‘70s beat.
There was a bit of monotony in the sounds after a few hours, but even if the songs seemed to blend together like the orange and red and blue light show that flooded the crowd repeatedly, as Tom swayed like a mad scientist and Ed nodded his head to the beat, it was clear that they were having just as much fun as the crazy crowd. A plastic smiley-faced beach ball made its way through the audience of 16,000 as the pulsing beats laid the foundation for a contemporary house/dance/techno party. If they had stayed playing there for five more hours, it wouldn’t have made much difference—the steady thump of their seductive and celebratory electronica would have kept the crowd hypnotized no matter what. It could have been the moon, it could have been the springtime rush of fun and pheromones but most likely, it was the intensity of techno and electronica at its finest blasting in the Bay Area.