Anyone who thinks DJs are boring to watch has never witnessed the crowd-pleasing (or crowd-pandering, depending on your point of view) antics of Donald Glaude. Glaude doesn’t just get up there and spin records, he cheerleads for them—raising his hands, yelling at the crowd, dancing, mugging, spinning equalizer knobs with as much vehemence as a B-movie mad scientist throwing switches on a doomsday machine. Once I saw him step out from behind the decks and run back and forth across the edge of the stage, urging the crowd into a frenzy during one particularly over-the-top build. It was nothing the lead singer of any rock band hasn’t done a million times, but in the furrowed-brow, acerbic world of club DJs, it was as startling as watching Pete Townsend smash a guitar. DJs aren’t supposed to be this demonstrative.
Misstress Barbara works in the more traditional mode—about the closest she gets to playing entertainer is to flash the crowd a smile every now and then. Not that she needs to do much else, because her striking looks alone make her more fun to watch than the vast majority of DJs, who tend to be average-looking guys with thinning hair and zero fashion sense.
But despite their differences in personal styles, musically Donald Glaude and Misstress Barbara are on the same page. Both specialize in hard tech house dressed up with elements of breakbeat and funk, and both are famous for spinning the kind of sets that leave fans of this stuff in a sweaty, rubber-legged heap by the end of the night—no quiet moments, just one raise-the-roof build and bangin’ beat on top on another. And both happen to be on the same label, Moonshine Records, so sending them out on tour together was a foregone conclusion.
At L.A.‘s mega-club Spundae, however, I thought the pairing left a little to be desired, and I don’t think I was the only one. Although there were plenty of enthusiastic fans crowding around the turntables for both sets, the dance floor was far less packed than usual, and except for a few moments early in Glaude’s set, the energy in the room never quite reached roof-raising levels.
Part of this, to be sure, must be blamed on the L.A. club scene, where trance is still king and Glaude and Barbara’s edgier, more tech-heavy style just attracts fewer fans. This is especially true at Spundae, which I still love as a club, but which has emerged over the past year as the Starbuck’s of dance venues. They deliver quality, sure, but the experience has grown somewhat generic, and they draw way more than their fair share of suburban twentysomethings just looking to get laid. And in one of those chicken-or-egg scenarios, the marquee DJs that Spundae attracts seem more and more often guilty of “dumbing down” their sets for the weekend warrior crowd. Jazzy and deep house DJs get harder and thumpier, trance DJs get cheesier, and tech house DJs seem to lose their sense of groove and go off the bangin’ beat deep end. This was my first time hearing Misstress Barbara, so I can’t accuse her of altering her style for the punters, but it certainly seemed to me like Glaude was sloppier and less stylistically adventurous than I’ve heard him be in previous sets.
Glaude took the decks at around 11:30 and got off to a strong start with a string of tracks that featured funky, infectious riffs and few vocals. He dropped in Daft Punk’s “Burnin’”, but otherwise stuck to material that was less familiar but no less crowd-pleasing. Later he pandered to the masses a bit more with a house mix of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and the original, Giorgio Moroder, synth-cheese version of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. Corny? You betcha. But this is actually, I think, where Glaude is at his best—mixing familiar tunes and funky, accessible riffs with edgier, more challenging techno sounds, and using his sunny stage presence and slashing, high-energy mixing style to keep the crowd with him through both extremes.
Over the course of his set, however, Glaude seemed to me to lose it, abandoning quality control in a relentless effort to fire up the Spundae crowd even more than it already was. His mixing grew at once flashier and messier, as he jiggled his master fader between tracks that weren’t quite beat-matched, and repeatedly dropped out all sound to yell, “make some fuckin’ noise!” (Predictably, the crowd made less noise every time he did this.) By the time he started working the sliders with his teeth, I was looking for the bar. I think the DJ-as-cheerleader concept is a fine one, but even I have my limits.
After Glaude’s over-the-top circus act, you might think that Misstress Barbara’s cooler approach to the decks would offer a welcome change of pace. And for about five minutes it did, but then it became increasingly apparent that Barbara was going to stick to one style for most of her two-hour set—namely, screechy, bangin’, frenetic techno, with lots of heavily filtered, trebly builds and nary an ounce of funk or soul to be heard. I have DJ friends who are in awe of Misstress Barbara’s technical skills—and for all I know she’s the da Vinci of turntables—but this was like watching her spend all night working on a single charcoal sketch when I had expected to see the collected works.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. A few of Barbara’s tracks had more going for them than ear-splitting high-hats and bone-shuddering kick drums. I recognized a couple of the funkier cuts off her latest Moonshine release, Relentless Beats Vol. 2, a very fine disc that belies its name with a hard-hitting but eclectic mix of hard house, techno and even Latin funk-fueled tracks. But for the most part, her set at Spundae was just a series of relentless beats, and by 3:00 a.m. about half the weekend warriors had vacated the dance floor in search of something less aggravating—another Red Bull, perhaps.
So on this particular night, for whatever reason, Moonshine’s ultimate tech house double bill fell short. Maybe Spundae’s just not the right venue for this sort of hard-hitting dance music, or maybe there are only so many bangin’ beats the average clubber can take. Or, for that matter, the average PopMatters music critic.