Things did not look promising. As he and his crate-toting handlers barreled through a crowd of people hanging out near the stage of the Mayan theater in downtown Los Angeles, German DJ Paul van Dyk had the steely focus of a man determined to get where he needed to be undisturbed. And yet, one young fan decided he was going to acknowledge his hero anyway, with a simple pat on the shoulder. Van Dyk snapped his neck around and threw said fan a cold, hard look that screamed, “Don’t fucking touch me.” Hard to believe this guy was now going to take to the turntables and spin three hours of airy, uplifting techno, the sort where kids bum-rush the stage, dance with their eyes to the ceiling and pogo as if they’re seeing U2 or No Doubt.
Paul van Dyk has always seemed the hands-off sort of guy. Past gigs have seen the acclaimed producer/DJ perform with the aloofness of an indie rocker, his hardened face rarely cracking despite the shrieks of joy his deliriously glowing sets elicit. He’s the antithesis of superstar jocks like Paul Oakenfold, BT and Tiesto, who shamelessly ham it up behind the decks, matching the crowd’s bouncing and fist pumping and ultimately encouraging more of it. Or maybe the guy would rather express his joy solely through the music he plays.
Which is why it was such a pleasant shock that, a few songs into his L.A. set (his second in three months; he three-peated SoCal superclub Giant’s lauded New Year’s Eve bash as its headliner), van Dyk was jumpin’ ‘n’ pumpin’ about, even allowing for the occasional smile. His spastic arm cranking and elastic body-bopping punctuated beat launches and sudden shifts in the music’s tone. He was completely in sync with the sold-out crowd, and that’s sometimes as much as you can hope for at a club gig that costs $40 to attend.
Van Dyk’s L.A. set was part of a promotional tour aimed at hyping his recent release, Global, a remixed retrospective of his work that dates back to the early ‘90s. (It also includes a documentary-style DVD that shows van Dyk on an international tour.) It’s his third American release in as many years, and through these albums—including 2000’s Out There and Back
(one of modern electronic music’s most consistent and well-written efforts) and 2001’s vibe-heavy mix, The Politics of Dancing—he has built up a massive fanbase that likes its drum beats hard and its synth riffs soft.
It is no surprise he’s so beloved—he is a key figure in the trance subgenre, the atmospheric and anthemic style that has lured some of the mainstream into clubs and raves over the past five years. His productions, which include 1994’s “For an Angel” (largely considered a blueprint for emotive techno) and 2000’s “Tell Me Why (The Riddle)”, have peppered the sets of international DJs for the past eight years. For all the criticism among pop music critics that DJs are merely human jukeboxes, van Dyk earns respect for not only introducing the rising sounds of the underground, but offering a generous output of forward-thinking dance music himself.
In fact, it’s his musical creations that garner the most praise. His DJing can feel somewhat settled at times, notably in the sequencing and tonal dynamics of his sets. On his late 2001 American tour, van Dyk would begin a set on a high note, and keep it there for the duration of his performance. However, at the Mayan, he built mountains and dug valleys through the tracks he spun, giving his set a narrative feel. Just as the cheese factor began to creep into the more sugary selections halfway into the show, he threw in some emotionally tempered, electro-esque breakbeat tracks. It is here that van Dyk is at his loosest and funkiest.
His first peak came 30 minutes into the set, when he dropped a remix of Coldplay’s current radio stormer, “Clocks”—especially timely given that the British band had won two Grammys just hours earlier. The song is known for its ethereal piano melody, an element highlighted in most of van Dyk’s own work, so the rock song’s inclusion was not so much a stretch. In fact it was as rapturously received as the DJ’s own “Avenue”, one of his more popular productions.
His second peak came sometime after the breaks segment, when Sasha’s sublime “Wavy Gravy” kicked off another euphoric stretch of unabashed trance. It was this portion of the set that would energize the clubbers enough to go the distance, but it also revealed the limitations of the subgenre, one van Dyk notoriously loathes to be branded with. While trance has overwhelmingly succeeded in bringing a much-needed tunefulness to underground dance music, it has progressed very little over the past 10 years. Some of the tracks played tonight would not have been out of place in, say, 1998.
And that’s exactly how the kids want it. Most of the Mayan’s crowd consisted of twenty-something clubbers who have grown out of raves but remain nostalgic for them, and a sizable showing of collegiate Asian Americans, a demographic that nearly dominates the progressive dance music scene in Southern California. Though the two sects rarely seemed to consort with one another, it was the heaven-bound melodies that allowed for moments of genuine crowd unity. They agree on one other thing, too: peace. As the words “make love not war” flanked the Mayan screens, gig-goers threw up peace signs and cheered, their lingering PLUR ethos from the late ‘90s seemingly poised for a comeback.
The last surprise of van Dyk’s set was the second encore and show closer, which was more vocal-friendly, break-laden and soulful than his usual voxless, Teutonic, 4/4 style. He effectively broke the trance, so to say, as the encore received mixed reactions among the glowstick faction perhaps expecting a more elating conclusion. On the other hand, it was yet another wrench thrown into the typically plateau-succumbing techno set, and another sign Paul van Dyk has evolved where most of his peers haven’t.