Lost in the Night: New Year's Eve at the Knockout and Public Works

Kahley Avalon Emerson
Random audience members playing KiNK's midi controller

Double Feature: Oldies Night and KiNK
Dec. 31, 2011
The Knockout and Public Works

Better than: Being away from San Francisco for new years.

It was 10:45 p.m. and I was lucky enough to be in a cab speeding towards the Outer Mission. Thinking strategically, we planned our evening to start at the Knockout's canonical Oldies Night and end at Public Works' big rave with Honey Soundsystem, Sunset, and KiNK. Ducking through traffic, our taxi weaved by an escalating street scene in front of Nap's 3 and stopped right across from the Knockout. A Marlboro-addled crowd of hip scenesters, strictly attired in thrift store apparel, formed a line that stretched from the entrance of the venue on down to Taqueria Cancun. It was a lively group, though one that seemed unhappy to be waiting.

Inside, the club was slammed. A potent smell reminiscent of stale alcohol and sweat matched the sheer number of bodies mashed into the small venue. It was so crowded that moving further inside felt like navigating a mosh pit. Constant body-to-body contact was the norm for the evening. The immediacy provoked a lively atmosphere. This was amplified by the sounds being blasted through the club's PA system: Giant cartoon-like saxophone riffs and reckless organ playing tore through the room with all the grace and subtlety of the Kool-Aid Man.

Commanding the room was the imposing figure of resident disc jockey Primo Pitino. Positioned at the fore of the stage, he bobbed his head around as he danced between the DJ booth and his record boxes. Selecting 7-inches, he composed an eclectic sonic collage that included boogaloo, reggae, northern soul, and '60s garage. A longtime DJ on the soul scene, Primo's developed a unique style of mixing that features abrupt stops and starts that smartly transition between songs by way of shared rhythmic elements: a shared hit of the snare allows him to turn on a dime into entirely different material. Everything he played was top-notch, catered with care for a crowd he's developed over the past decade. Some more obvious highlights of his set included Desmond Dekker's "Isrealites," Pointer Sisters' "Send Him Back," and a Latin track similar to Joe Bataan's "Subway Joe." All the while he toyed with the soundscape by working the EQs and utilizing his mixer's phase effects to create loud whooshing noises that flew through the room like a phantom tilt-a-whirl.

We enjoyed midnight at the Knockout. Primo led the crowd towards the first minute of 2012 with a version of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs' "Stay (Just a Little Bit Longer)." Almost getting in the full duration of the track, he cut out 10 seconds to midnight to allow for a loud countdown. As the moment came and went, 2011 was sent off with the loud fanfare of party horns, screams, and wild grabbing. For a moment everything seemed to move in slow motion. New arrivals might have thought the room was playing host to a make-out flash mob.

Kahley Avalon Emerson

As nice as that moment was -- and very rarely does it disappoint -- the vibe was dispersed by the opening guitar riffs of East Bay power-pop band, The Cuts' set. Ripping immediately into their classic catalogue of '70s-referencing rock and roll (think Television and The Real Kids), their arrival seemed to dramatically alter the structure of the room. Loud and as obnoxious as they ever were -- but notably older -- the band's music confused the crowd of dancers who came dressed for an entirely different decade. Maybe it was the timing of their performance, but it couldn't have been a coincidence that many of the girls in the room seemed to decide in unison that it was time for a smoke break.

We left the Knockout shortly after The Cuts finished playing. Just before we left, Oldies Night DJ Ivar tossed the evening a non-sequitur by playing the Commodores' 1985 tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, "Nightshift." The smooth modern soul seemed to announce the end of the rock segment and a return to the party's regularly scheduled programming.

We soon found ourselves immersed in a completely different environment at Public Works. Entering the main room around 1 a.m., we were treated to an all-vinyl performance by Honey Soundsytstem's Jason Kendig. He played a Berlin-centric set that emphasized the sheer power behind the sound design of his records' kick drums--the walls seemed to bounce with every beat. Dancing to his tunes was a crowd mostly made up of shirtless and grizzly men combined with a sprinkling of the city's more savvy clubgoers. Complimenting the dancers was an intense installation of decorations that included honeycombing behind the DJ booth and dense forests of black garland dangling down from the ceiling. Old-school psychedelic lighting equipment provided a subtle alternative to the club's usual digital media barrage.

Kahley Avalon Emerson

Finally, our night came to a close courtesy of Strahil Velchev (a.k.a. KiNK). Set up on the stage next to Kendig, Velchev instantly won the dancefloor's favor by dropping into "Blueprint." He moved through his discography, playing his tracks on the fly, and remixing snippets of recognizable material with improvised live keyboard flourishes. In the process, he took his MIDI controllers to the limits of their abilities. He played the part of a mad scientist, complete with maniacal grin and an OCD approach to performing that saw him constantly fiddling with knobs and tweaking settings. Later, while working the room with a deep acid cut, he even held up his controller and had people in the audience push in a custom acid bassline.

Moments like this allowed him to forge a direct communication with the crowd, which helped to build dynamic peaks in his music. This was best heard during his live performance of "Existence." Sampling the piano chords from Jeff Mills' "Changes of Life," Velchev teased the audience again and again before finally unleashing the sample with booming kick drum accompaniment to mass screams, hysteria, and wild abandon from the crowd. We danced till our feet got tired and left around 3 a.m. to be greeted by the warm (and dry) morning air of New Year's Day 2012.

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