The attitude of the cooler-than-cool couple in front of us in line for Amon Tobin, the Brazilian electronic musician/mad scientist, pretty much summed up the evening for me. Sure, I expected hipsters galore at a show like this—while I’ve never really met any other Amon Tobin fans, I assume that those who enjoy his whacked-out, oddly cinematic, loopy, strangely sampled, drum & bass-influenced, insanely fast creations might be a little presumptuous themselves. His label, Ninja Tune, has spent the past decade or so distributing records by other exciting experimental artists like brilliant scratcher Kid Koala, DJ Vadim, and the show’s opener DJ Food, who likewise attract a certain hip quotient of fans. Finally, the show was at Warsaw, a Polish center that also functions as an indie-rock venue, in Williamsburg, the heartbeat of New York’s hipster elite. I should have been a bit more prepared.
8 Nov 2002: Warsaw Brooklyn, New York
But then there was this couple in front of us. In tight jeans, boots, shaggy Lou Reed haircut, and velvet blazer, the man swaggered like one of the Casablancas off to play his latest record for his model of the moment. His girlfriend’s pointy white shoes and oh-so-bored look perfectly complemented his laissez-faire attitude. As the line moved forward, they gazed at the spot opening in front of them, casually took a couple steps forward, and leaned back against the wall, staring at some unknown spot in the distance (whatever they were looking at, I’m sure it was cool), leaving at least two feet of empty space in front of them. Too cool to even move all the way forward in line. Were they there to hear music or just to look good?
While this should have been nothing more than entertainment before the evening began, sadly this display really set the tone for the show. It was more about image than music, more about being ironic than experimenting, and apparently more about distorting drums as much as possible than providing a good balanced sound. First, Warsaw has the acoustics of a high school gymnasium; you can virtually hear the echo of sound bouncing off one wall, the ceiling, and then the other wall. Second, the place just wasn’t set up for this type of show: everyone stood around, staring, not sure whether to dance like clubbers or nod their heads like indie rockers. And, most importantly, the performers just didn’t live up to expectations.
The worst part was suffering through DJ Food before Amon Tobin. When he played “Work It Out” by Beyoncé Knowles, I thought, well, ok, maybe he’s just being ironic. Not particularly clever, but forgivable; the beat of that song is relatively infectious. When he moved on to “Good Thing” by the Fine Young Cannibals, I started getting distressed. When Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” came on and hipsters were grooving and pumping their fists in the air, I was pissed. And when Justin Timberlake’s new single started playing and everyone was still dancing, I was simply dumbfounded as to why no one else appeared confused or irritated.
Finally, Amon Tobin came onstage. But his first song, unfortunately, was “Verbal”, featuring MC Decimal R, or, as I like to call it, the Fatboy Slim song. In my opinion, it’s one of the worst off Tobin’s new album, Out From Out Where: it’s far too danceable and far too mainstream, and the vocal sounds less experimental and more like angry chipmunks sounding off. It only went downhill from there, as Tobin’s exceptionally complex and detailed soundscapes were distorted into far-too-drum-heavy mushes by Warsaw’s awful acoustics, aggravated by the fact that he appeared to be catering to the crowd (who, after all, had cheered for “Hot in Herre”). Part of the reason I like Tobin’s music is because it can be hard to figure out the incredibly complicated rhythms; at this show, he seemed to be taking an easy, crowd-pleasing way out, letting the kids pump their fists and dance hard but not making them work. Simply put, the music sounded dumbed-down. I never leave concerts early. But this was too much.
As we exited Warsaw’s doors, frustrated beyond belief, the first good song all evening came on. We stood out front as “Proper Hoodidge” started rolling and tumbling out of the speakers, reveling in some good music for a change. But by then it was too late. We stumbled into a taxi and headed home, popping the excellent Supermodified into the CD player and wishing that was how the whole night had sounded: insane, creative, layered, and detailed, about experimenting, and not concerned with irony or image.