Lost in the Night: Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson Struggle at Public Works
Kahley Avalon Emerson Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson at Public Works on Saturday night.
Hi Tek Soul
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.
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."
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.
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.