I entered the Bowery Ballroom full of anticipation; I left bewildered and disappointed. Expecting a turntable wizard, I found an excited but awkwardly placed guitarist. Instead of four turntables playing the role of reliable band members, I heard a drummer and two multi-instrumentalists banging away with their leader. Instead of climax-building electronic expositions, I got a schizophrenic shuffle of average indie rock, spun sparse with soulful electronica hits from what seemed like a past life. Such was RJD2’s overdone melting pot of a show, part of his second national tour in support of his spring 2007 release and XL Recordings debut, The Third Hand.
To any listener, The Third Hand is an obvious departure from RJ’s past work. On his 2002 Definitive Jux debut, Deadringer, RJ forged acoustic alchemy, seamlessly weaving (and balancing) soul, hip-hop, rock, and electronic sounds. The Horror, his follow-up remix EP, expanded and further developed his unique sound, and on Since We Last Spoke, RJ played with more electronic and rock sounds while still evoking his fundamentally soulful hip-hop beginnings. Throughout this time, collaborations with numerous rappers, including Blueprint as the duo Soul Position, cemented his unique sound within the tenuously defined hip-hop genre.
2 May 2008: Bowery Ballroom New York, NY
But instead of sticking with his past celebrated sound, tonight finds RJ not only at his Technics but also at a microphone singing lead and playing electric guitar. His new songs no longer induce bobbing or strutting, but rather charged fist pumps and incongruous jumps and twists. In other words, RJ has ostensibly abandoned the electronic hip-hop beats (which remind one of DJ Shadow and others) that he developed with Def Jux in favor of a generic indie pop sound and XL.
It’s not that experimentation and new pursuits are to be frowned upon; quite the opposite. Sonic development and crisscrossing genres—and more importantly the musical innovation they reap—is principle in the advancement of contemporary music. Jamie Lidell, for example, has not limited himself to his DJ capabilities and has released pop-inspired tracks that successfully feature his soulful voice. But like any artist’s work, new directions must be judged independently, not justified by the artist’s reputation and labeled sound, especially if founded in an entirely different genre. And when RJ’s The Third Hand is evaluated on its own, it falls ignominiously short.
Which is precisely why my hopes ran naively high for RJ’s latest tour. Given the weakness of his latest release, I secretly wished that his set’s newest incarnation would either: a) be a two-part act featuring a tour de force of DJing preceded by the necessary full band numbers or b) a sublime adaptation and amalgamation of his newest songs and instruments, completely superseding any precedent of electronic rock. Sadly, neither took place.
Opening with the retro “1976”, RJ was at ease behind his production setup and charmingly humble in front of it. He apologized for a technical delay (“My power strip died”) and seemed buoyed by the roaring crowd, Continuing with his soul-tinged selections, RJ offered up “Bus Stop Bitties” and “Final Frontier” as an intro into “Smoke and Mirrors”. The latter he remixed into a cluttered melee of drums and electronic add-ons that completely disrupted the haunting lyrics, ominously distorted guitar whines, and pulsing beat. After introducing his live drummer Sam Brown on “June” (a successful collaboration) and heading downstage to play newer songs with his backing band, he returned to his turntables, launching into an awkward full-band rendition of “Ghostwriter”, his most well-known track.
An important element in RJ’s antiquated soul sound is the spinning record itself and all its idiosyncratic imperfections. It’s instantly aged and authenticated. But a live instrumental version, though complete with its own flaws, just can’t match the track’s unmistakable undulating cadence. Essentially, his older stuff withered with instrumentation. As for the new stuff—what it lacks on record, it lacks equally in concert: distinction, movement, balance, and a discernible hook that can identify one song from another. Live, it was the same amorphous collection of tracks.
Most intriguing of all were the encore and finale. RJ, now fully committed to the role of rocker as opposed to DJ, played a solo acoustic version of “Work It Out” that unleashed his inner singer-songwriter. Then, flanked by his band members, RJ led them through the Elliott Smith-like melody of “You Never Had it so Good”. To complete the night, they performed yet another Nintendo piece, this time sincerely covering, with gusto, the Mario Brothers theme song to its digital completion. Aside from the fact that “Mario Brothers” as a kitsch cover had its moment years ago, the decision to end an otherwise crowd-pleasing show with an unoriginal cover was as disappointing as it was puzzling—much like RJD2 forgoing his dynamic DJ sound in favor of generic alternative rock.