Friday Night: Simian Mobile Disco at Mezzanine

Categories: Last Night
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Simian Mobile Disco
November 27, 2009

Better Than: "Stronger" by Kanye West, or Daft Punk's original for that matter

Simian Mobile Disco unpacked its particular brand of electronic fugue Friday at Mezzanine. The British duo of James Ford and Jas Shaw programmed an arrangement of accumulating, layered chords, piling up orchestral harmonies like a cross between a Dopplering train whistle and a cathedral organ.

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Ford and Shaw are perhaps most popularly known for their contribution earlier this decade to electro-rock group Simian. That group's Justice-mashup "We Are Your Friends" begat Kanye West's protracted awards-show disenfranchisement when it won the 2006 MTV Europe Music Award for "Best Video" ahead of West's "Touch the Sky." Friday, Simian Mobile Disco stuck to house and trance rhythms. The duo presented a web of half-syllables, siren gasps, and cyclical revving embedded with occasional club R&B loops, including
their single "Audacity of Huge" with its vocal hook by Yeasayer's Chris Keating.

Simian's appearance was promoted specifically as a "live set"--as distinguished, presumably, from a DJ gig. But whereas Ford and Shaw handled drums and keyboard, respectively, as members of Simian, at Mezzanine they hovered around a contraption of gear that looked like a server-tower tied to mixing boards. They swirled around the device like shamans around a sacred bonfire, flipping switches and plugs, but with none of a shaman's flair for showmanship.

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Amidst the pitter patter of synthetic piano keys and 8-bit beeps, however, they articulated the most suspenseful tonic breakdowns. The pair supplanted treble-disco crescendos with undersea depth charges that racked the crowd with tidal waves of bass. This combination inspired a spiritual activation in Simian fans similar to a religious rapture. Men in flannel shirts or puffy vests raised their arms like winning boxers, heaving up and down among the surging mass of crowd. Women went into seizures on the sideline--was it drugs, the shaking bass, or the epileptic light show?

Mezzanine's acoustics seemed to abolish altogether the outer shell of the real world, further spiriting the crowd into frenzied devotion. But Shaw and Ford missed the chance to acknowledge their congregation, instead manipulating their machines as technicians behind a glass screen or surgeons operating within some medical amphitheater. The show seemed more technological virtuosity than live performance.

The art of nuanced showmanship had not escaped the evening's openers, San Francisco's own Tenderlions. For their set, John Bryars played manual percussion, accompanying Evan Atkinson's laptop mixes by crushing an old-school kit of kettles and cymbals and otherwise spraying adrenaline all over the first few rows.

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If there is a distinct difference between the "live set" and an ordinary club electro gig, it comes down to the Tenderlions' style of audience involvement. Bryars understood the tribal ritual at the base of dance music. In place of another sacrificial animal, Tenderlions submitted themselves to the crowd for devouring--and the audience ate them up.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: I've been hooked on Simian since seeing Justice perform the "We Are Your Friends" remix at Treasure Island Music Festival in 2008.

Random Detail: One girl was observed administering a band-aid to her sore instep, presumably from dancing too hard in her 4-inch heels, during JHD & Dave P's set

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