City: Los Angeles Venue: The El Rey Theatre Date: 2004-03-24
Photo credit: Richard Houghton
What do you get when you split a Lazy Dog in half? A Buzzin' Fly, of course. That's the name Ben Watt's been operating under since he parted ways with his old Lazy Dog partner Jay Hannan and went on to start his own deep house record label (Buzzin' Fly Records, natch) and a bi-weekly London club, Neighbourhood.
Ben Watt is still probably best known as Tracey Thorn's partner from Everything But the Girl, but in recent years he's turned his attention almost exclusively to house music, producing remixes and collaborations with everyone from Sade to Terence Trent D'Arby (or Sananda Maitreya, as he's calling himself these days) to Me'Shell NdegéOcello. His style generally tends towards the "old school" of deep house, which favors lots of uplifting melodies, warm, soulful vocals and basslines sleeker than a baby seal. Done well, this type of music can be wonderful, the kind of party music that leaves you feeling blissed out and relaxed rather than amped-up in that whooping, mosh-pitting, MTV Spring Break sort of way. And Watt generally does it really well.
So I was surprised to find myself a little underwhelmed by Ben Watt's set at the El Rey in Los Angeles, the same place I heard him and Jay Hannan tear it up just two years ago. I was dancing and enjoying myself, but not really feeling it. The music was good and all, but there was a certain familiarity to it all, even though I didn't recognize most of the tracks Watt spun, probably because his new mix CD and Buzzin' Fly's first 12-inch releases aren't yet available in the States. Without Hannan to feed from, Watt's track selection tends to stay stuck in a predictable string of uplifting anthem after uplifting anthem, all with big climatic builds and big vocal hooks. It was all dessert, no main course.
Of course I appeared to be in the minority on this point -- the crowd was getting down and on the whole seemed to be having a great time. The dance floor was less crowded than it had been at the Lazy Dog show two years before, but it was plenty active, and the response to each big build up in the music was plenty enthusiastic.
So maybe it was just me. Maybe the fact that I'd been stuck serving on a jury in a tedious civil case for the last few days was to blame for my lack of enthusiasm.
Or maybe it was because Miguel Migs was spinning that night across town at a club in Santa Monica, which in the deep house world is a little like booking Ozzy and AC/DC concerts on the same night.
But no, I found myself thinking, as I watched Watt cue another five minutes of bumpin' 125bpm aural bliss. It really was that Watt's just not the same without Jay Hannan. Watt, who is the Paul McCartney of deep house if ever there was one -- a pop genius who's guilty at times of playing it safe -- had lost his Lennon. Hannan, if this solo set was any indication, was the one inspiring Watt to put a little Latin sway and techno kick and all-around sense of adventure into his super-smooth grooves. Without him, Watt was still good -- just not, well, amazing. He played a set with no surprises.
Jay Hannan has a solo project, too -- a new club and accompanying mix CD called Underdog. It's not out in the States yet, but I'll be curious to hear it when it arrives -- to see if he, too, has lost a certain something in his post-Lazy Dog incarnation, or if he's found a way to keep pushing deep house in some new and interesting directions on his own.
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