The night starts out badly. First, an angry drunk, outside of the venue on Chicago’s congested Clark Street, picks a fight with the bouncer who confiscated his fake ID. “I drove all the way from Arkansas,” he yelled. Soon security has it under wraps, but it’s still a dark and bordering-on-a-storm Windy City night. I eavesdrop on two, jean-clad women, talking, waiting to get in. “Last time I was here, I got kicked out because I threw up in a garbage can.” one cackles. Any thoughts I had of stopping across the street to grab a quick beer quickly disappear. This night HAS to get better.
Downstairs at the Smart Bar, a scattered group of silhouettes face the sky-blue windows. They warm their chilled bodies up by flailing arms and legs to the warm-up DJ, who precedes Brazilian “minimal” techno producer Gui Boratto. His last two recordings – 2007’s Chromophobia and Royal House, which was released in 2004 — flaunted Boratto’s departure from the tepid-techno circulating since the ‘90s. His recent release — Take My Breath Away — substantiated his stature as a visionary producer who adds a range of dynamics, crescendo, and technique probably heralding from his musical family roots, well-honed and persistently bed-rock, keyboard chops, and years as a recording engineer who entered the club scene by first creating re-mixes.
Boratto attracts a fairly mixed-bag audience. Two tall blondes wearing black-button-down, long-sleeved shirts invade the tar-black dance floor. A meaty guy wearing a leopard-patterned fedora and one with a white tee and baseball cap share drinks. The two women sitting adjacent murmur: “Got any dope?” “Huh?” “Got any pills?” Then a bespectacled wild-boy sidles up to me. “You’re a girl. Ask him to play Chicago house.” I shrug. “Oh, c’mon, ask him to play it.” But before I stammer my request, some satiating “house” blares from the stage.
Boratto works his computer like the “Wizard of Oz” behind the curtain, but he does it for real. His arms blur — we wonder if he’s part octopus. Concentrating on getting the perfect mix, he lights a cigarette and a swarm of hands attached to blissful grins extend their lighters. He mixes the sound, takes a sip of something strong, and shines his doe eyes in the path of the crowd and smiles. It’s a beautiful, Brazilian smile — and it seems like it’s endless.
The dancers punch the air each time Boratto changes the beat, adds distortion or creates a hypnotic motif — at one point in the night, a circle of dance floor denizens hold hands and spin their bodies into techno-butter. Whirling dervish torsos glimmer vis-à-vis the pulsing strobe. Or, maybe they’re doing the horah. One tan guy wearing jeans and a white T-shirt closes his eyes and it seems Boratto’s muse sends him a mantra and the mantra sends him straight to nirvana.
Some people are still getting used to the idea that a musician doesn’t have to sling a Stratocaster over his shoulder or preside over a drum kit, but Boratto belies the image of the computer or techno-nerd. True, his axe is a portable laptop, but his genius is his mind and body. His solid frame pulses in reaction to the audience and he senses when they want more beat, more psychedelia or more riff.
Furthermore, intersecting those beats and riffs, is a solid compositional structure. And though some of those littering the dance floor may grasp the underlying classical overtures of the music, others could clearly care less. On the dance floor, everyone is equal. They flash peace symbols across the room and smile at strangers. You wonder if their grandparents told them tales of Woodstock because it really is a festival of love atmosphere — there is no sci-fi fourth wall that separates Boratto from his fans – and, despite the drama on entry, everyone connects tonight.
“No Turning Back”, has an ethereal chorus sung by Boratto’s wife, Luciana Villanova — it juxtaposes the dissonance and fierce adrenaline of the tune. Boratto’s positively reviewed standout, “Beautiful Life”, plays near the end of the set. It starts out structurally like a standard pop song — some guitar work that morphs into chaotic murmurs, then acid- rock blur, finally raucous African drums, and lastly poppy vocals. Since it’s one of the few tracks with vocals played tonight, the fans mouth the words intuitively knowing that this night’s music is a far cry from the standard fare that techno often brings to the turntable. It’s past 4 am when Boratto’s figure exits — he jokes with fans and shakes hands.
Techno has followed a wildfire trajectory that few genres can claim, but under Boratto’s grip, beautiful melodies stream into a night that really does, like his latest album title insinuates, “take our breath away.”