Lost in the Night: Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson Struggle at Public Works

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Kahley Avalon Emerson
Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson at Public Works on Saturday night.

Hi Tek Soul
Public Works
Nov. 12, 2011

Better than: Actually watching Max Headroom.

The history of dance music is littered with church metaphors. Sometimes this can be literal -- for instance, last week's party at a converted church with Carl Craig -- but, more often, the allusion has a figurative quality. This was the case Saturday at Public Works, when Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson (two of techno's blessed saints) headlined as a part of their "Hi Tek Soul" tour. Like church, the quality of the experience inevitably came down to the sermon being given and the environment in which it was delivered.

The feeling at 11 p.m. was one of nervous anticipation. An older crowd of approximately 50 people encircled the dance floor, bobbing their heads, drinking cocktails, and socializing. Occasionally a dancer would pop onto the floor to limber up, but it was only a moment before they snapped back into formation. The reluctance by the dancers seemed directly attuned to the uncompromisingly fast and loud music of the opening DJ, which skewed towards the techier side of house. Right off the bat, it was apparent that something was off with the sound at Public Works on Saturday. The highs were piercing in a way that is unusual for the venue's main room, and a persistent digital clipping unfortunately came to tarnish a lot of the evening's performances.

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Kahley Avalon Emerson

From the bar we were able to take in a wider picture of the scene. The DJ, perhaps realizing he was moving too quickly, dropped into a set of groovy and deep vocal house. This transition attracted a sizeable crowd of dancers to the floor. In front of me, a particularly enthusiastic woman felt the music so much (this was at 11:30 p.m., mind you) that she began executing elaborate choreographed dance moves directly in front of a corner speaker. High above, non sequitur projections of karate guys flew over a succession of '80s hardcore punk flyers -- the word "Tuberculosis" featured heavily over a predominantly pink motif. Later, I would look up to find Max Headroom being devoured by a velociraptor caught in an infinity of video feedback.

By midnight, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson's impending set seemed to pull people to the floor like a vacuum. Uncomfortably packed, the opening DJ took full advantage of his position to drop a few classic-sounding tracks and get the crowd going to a fever pitch. All around me, people screamed and chanted in unison. At one point the entire crowd even started emulating the iconic "bell noise" from Anita Ward's "Ring My Bell."

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Kahley Avalon Emerson

Understandably, by the time May and Saunderson took the stage (around 12:10), things were primed and ready to go. Their presence in the room immediately felt positive: people cheered, handshakes and hugs were given all around, and smiles seemed to be creeping over everyone's faces. But, while the audience was willing, the gear setup clearly wasn't. Saunderson and May both struggled to get their equipment working satisfactorily (and even then, throughout the night, May continued to tweak things with the sound guy). Due to these technical problems, the opening DJ stayed on for what seemed like a good while longer than he should have. This fed into a kind of anti-climax. Nevertheless, the crowd was incredibly forgiving.

Finally, at 12:30 a.m., the music faded out to dead silence. After a moment of applause, Saunderson and May got underway: massive organ swells pounded through the speakers, giving way to a vertigo-inducing '90s vocal house track. As soon as the song played, both DJs were on top of it with their separate EQ units. This set the tone for the evening; it was a vibe of controlled, manic energy, with dramatic cuts, sharp stops (with milliseconds of dead silence), and a harsh isolation style that found new rhythms in old material. They also executed extremely long blends (some that felt literally minutes long) that would slide in and out of phase, creating a strange, syncopated and human element to their music.

From here they exhibited a dynamic range, moving from big room house to extremely funky techno with a graceful ease. Throughout the first hour or so of the set, they punctuated the music with beatless acapellas from Saunderson's discography. The most memorable moment of the night came following a dubbed-out and toyed-with rendition of the acapella from Inner City's "Good Life." Teasing the sample, Saunderson built the audience to tension before releasing an updated, bottom-heavy remix.

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Kahley Avalon Emerson

This, however, leads me to one of my biggest complaints about the evening, which was that neither of them played any non-remixed classics. Instead, references to previous tracks floated in and out of the mix without ever actually dropping. The closest the night came to such a moment was a brief interval spent with Royal House's "Can You Party" -- which, understandably, made everyone on the floor respond with a resounding "yes!"

From that point, May and Saunderson upped the tempo to a blistering pace. The room emptied of its drinking crowd and took on the quality of a dark rave. Hard and extremely fast, percussive techno quickly became the soundtrack. We stayed for a little while, but found that the music was just too tiring to stay past 3 a.m. Satisfied, but sore and exhausted, we stumbled out of the club and into the morning.

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Kahley Avalon Emerson

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Public Works

161 Erie, San Francisco, CA

Category: Music

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10 comments
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iliketoparty
iliketoparty

Joebriggs, please start your own party in SF. I will to come.

Erik Olson
Erik Olson

Bringing Simon Reynolds into a discussion about Derek May and Kevin Saunderson is indicative of an inherent bias against 4-4 house and techno, which he has p much always dismissed as an artifact of the past (since like 1991 he has been saying stuff like this) in favor of the bass continuum (obv movements like drill and bass the current incarnation of dubstep are truly refined art forms lol). Basically, SR doesn't care about much - if any - of the stuff that made NY garage unique and fun, and applying this viewpoint to an SF revival is never going to be relevant. He *never* got it, and just because he is an influential writer doesn't mean we should only look to him for a way to contextualize what's going on in music at large. Or even dance music at large.

Gemini, Go Bang, and other SF disco parties aren't/weren't necessarily all the same, in terms of demographics/turnout nor in terms of the tunes being played, and as a recent expat from SF I'd just like to stress the fact that outside of large cities like NY and SF (and maybe LA or Chicago at a stretch) these types of disco-centric parties are huge rarities. It's weird to complain about oversaturation of such an isolated phenomenon in favor of one that is much more widespread and easily cooptable at the moment, no? 

Joebriggs
Joebriggs

Thanks for the lecture, I'm sure you lived through the '80s and '90s in NY like I did, being maybe 30 at most. And yes I do like UK garage and have a lot of it, because I love garage period. And yes I did go to disco parties. The Go Bang one being the best, and Gemini, went once and it was awful. Dreadful, generic selections and comical djing. Come down from your little high horse and listen to what other people play, produce and write (journalistically that is), it will help you out of the little arrogant phase you are/have been going through. Don't worry, there is help,even for cocky, uninformed hipster quasi-journalists. Perhaps your rich parents can pay for the therapy. SF's in a sad spot when people like you are its tastemakers. Really.

TeenWitchTrouble
TeenWitchTrouble

lol Joe Briggs' arguments are hard to take seriously when personal attacks are being thrown about like this.

Derek Opperman
Derek Opperman

Ad hominem attacks don't help your position Joe. Who's really on the high horse here?

Joebriggs
Joebriggs

Often the sound is piercing in a club when the club is empty. It's an aural illusion and not really reflective of the sound system. I'm kinda glad they didn't play much old stuff. It's time for some new music, the disco/retro thing – which you may not have caught in SF in the last few years — has dragged on a little too long. The club scene has always been powered on new cuts, with thoughtfully placed classics, but SF from 2005 was one generic disco party after another. Simon Reynolds rightfully identified this as an upper class and upper-middle class attempt to achieve cool through reliving a long-dead past. Time to move on, IMHO.

Derek Opperman
Derek Opperman

Hey Joe,

The sound was piercing till we left. I had to put tissue paper in my ears. Derrick May was off the decks yelling at the sound guy for the majority of the night. And, the new music they played drifted into rather boring riser techno. Which, hey, that's cool if you like it, but I personally think it's bland and predictable.

I think new music is a great thing too. I think right now San Francisco is hearing a lot of interesting new music that both draws from the past and also predicts the future. That being said, May and Saunderson were not playing what I would consider to be the avant garde of contemporary dance music...they were playing a set that would have probably nailed it in Ibiza.

As to your point about disco, well, that's a sore spot. I promoted a party, Gemini Disco, for four years here and I've gotten into plenty of arguments with people who hold similar views as yourself. The fact that you are making a blanket statement about "generic disco parties" shows me that you weren't a part of the scene and that you never really got what was special about it. For me, disco in SF in the '00s was about reconnecting with the larger continuum of dance music but also, a rejection of the rise of blog house, electro, and—later—wobbly dubstep (which, as you'll recall, were all much bigger phenomena).  The scene was also a return to the idea of "parties," where the party is the event and not the headlining artist (which we seem to be losing again today). There was a community and together (with an extremely varied crowd) we were all able to learn a history of where the present comes from (in not only a national sense, but also, and more importantly, a regional one). 

Also, the global "nudisco" community (which the SF scene was a tangential part of) ended up producing some great music...effectively pushing dance music forward into the period of convergence we're at right now. I'd argue that without the renewed interest in the continuum of dance music (which, yeah is a perversion of a Reynoldsism) that the nudisco scene was a part of, you probably wouldn't have UK garage tracks that sample Moodymann or dubstep guys making acid house with drum and bass sound palettes and broken rhythms...both exciting and novel forms of dance music in my opinion.

Re: Reynolds. I agree that applies to some aspects of the scene, but I think there are other communities (especially in San Francisco) where that's a much more applicable analysis. Though, then again, you can force a Marxist analysis on anything, that doesn't necessarily make it objectively true (though it is a valid way of viewing the world.) Also, I'm not sure there's an inherent problem with upper class or upper-middle class people making art (Dieter Meyer happens to be one of my favorite artists). Maybe you can expand on why that's a problem? Do you feel cool is exclusively reserved for the (so-called) working class? I'm not sure that's a historical truth...though it is an opinion I'd expect from a British punk rock journalist. 

TL;DR

This all just comes down to taste. As I alluded at the top of the article, music is a lot like religion. I doubt I'll be able to baptize you into my way of thinking and vice versa.

Butt
Butt

That sound from the crowd was "whoo-whoo" From P. Funk's "Flashlight" not Ring My Bell.

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