Boy George and Perry Farrell may be the more famous names, but there’s no question right now that the most successful artist to make the leap from pop performer to club DJ is Ben Watt. After more than a decade of playing Dave Stewart to Tracey Thorn’s Annie Lennox in Everything But the Girl, Watt has finally grabbed a much deserved piece of the limelight with his wildly successful “side project” Lazy Dog. Begun in 1998 as a Sunday London dance club, the Lazy Dog name has now spawned a fantastic double CD of deep house mixes, and several successful global tours for its co-founders, Watt and partner Jay Hannan.
Lazy Dog’s success rests largely on a very simple fact—hardly anyone else is playing deep, soulful house any more (not here in L.A., at least, and apparently not in London, either, where they famously pack the sidewalk outside the tiny Notting Hill Arts Club with hundreds of fans twice a month). Dismissed as old hat by a growing number of house DJs, who have made the leap to tribal and progressive, it’s a style of music that nevertheless maintains a deeply loyal following among a mostly older crowd, who fell in love with it back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and never got tired of its warm, uplifting vibe. And its lack of exposure is even more regrettable considering the number of great artists, including Lazy Dog, who have been upgrading the deep house sound with heady doses of jazz, Latin and new jack soul sounds.
When Lazy Dog first came to L.A. in late 2000, the word was already out—they packed a tiny Santa Monica club called Sugar so tight you could only dance by bouncing in place. And these weren’t lost Everything But the Girl fans, either—these were dedicated househeads, who filled the room with uplifted hands for every build and let the sweat fly with every slinky beat. By the following spring, Lazy Dog had already outgrown their next L.A. stop, Fais Do Do, a club more than twice Sugar’s size that they also filled to bursting. So I was relieved this time that around Lazy Dog’s L.A. booker, Bossa Nova, managed to secure them a Sunday night at the El Rey, a classic old theatre-turned-ballroom with a dance floor that even Lazy Dog couldn’t entirely fill. Finally, room to move.
Because when Watt and Hannan hit the decks, it’s impossible not to. Tag-teaming almost telepathically, these two cheerfully round-faced beatmasters crafted a three and a half hour set that never let up and never got tedious, a neat trick to pull off when most of what you spin is classic four-on-the-floor house. This is the advantage, however, of playing actual songs, as opposed to the abstract, repetitive-riff tracks favored by most modern house DJs. There’s still something to be said for lyrics, melody, and conventional song structure, no matter what hardcore fans of “progressive” dance music may say.
Nowhere is this in better evidence than on Lazy Dog’s best-known track, “Tracey in My Room”, a brilliant blend of Soul Vision’s remix of Sandy Rivera’s “Come Into My Room” with Everything But the Girl’s “Wrong”, off their much-revered 1996 Walking Wounded album. Laying Tracey Thorn’s marvelous voice atop a pulsating two-chord bassline and an irresistible synth hook, the song has both the urgent energy of all great dance music, and the instantly recognizable sound and simple but affecting lyrics (“Wherever you go, I will follow you/ ‘Cause I was wrong”) of a great pop tune. And it never fails to make the crowd go nuts, suggesting perhaps that Ben Watt ought to consider combining his two projects a little more often.
Elsewhere during their set, Watt and Hannan’s love of pop-infused house (or house-infused pop) provided most of the highlights. Watt’s remixes of Meshell Ngedeocello’s celebratory new track “Earth” and Sade’s “By Your Side” were further proof of his mastery at mixing the two schools, while other smart track selections like Donna Allen’s gloriously old school “He is the Joy” and someone’s (Watt’s?) great housified version of Maxwell’s “Lifetime” had the whole crowd singing along. Jay Hannan’s track selection was more eclectic, with some fabulous Latin-flavored numbers like Negrocan’s disco-meets-samba “Cada Vez” (one of the highlights of Lazy Dog’s first album) and even some edgier, more progressive stuff, but the two DJs blended their styles effortlessly, and appeared to be having a great time working the enthusiastic crowd.
Lazy Dog’s approach, as befits their name, is decidedly casual. Between track segues, Watt and Hannan just hang out together behind the decks, sipping drinks and chatting animatedly. Hannan even came out into the crowd and danced for awhile. Purists these days frown on this sort of thing, but I think it’s part of what Lazy Dog’s fans love about the duo. In a day and age when DJs are striving for mainstream musical legitimacy—and therefore trying to impress upon the masses how much skill it takes to mix records—Watt and Hannan are content to make it look effortless, like they just happen to be the two guys picking the songs that night. Their total lack of pretension is a joy to behold, and helps set the tone; there’s none of that catty fashion-show vibe that often taints the dance music scene at a Lazy Dog show, just a cheerful, laid-back crowd working up a sweat and having a good time.
Lazy Dog’s second CD is due out any day, and promises more of the same from this amazing duo—wonderfully groovy remixes of pop/soul material like Sade’s “By Your Side” and Lucy Pearl’s “Without You”, some Latin flavors from artists like Nova Fronteira and Mundo Azul, and instant-classic deep house cuts like Wamdue Project’s remix of Kim English’s “Been So Long”, which brought down the house Sunday night. Odds look good that next time Ben and Jay visit L.A., they’re gonna need a bigger venue again. And I really hope there’s still room to dance.