An assortment of beards, miniskirts, tennis shoes and floral dresses stood in the cold outside of the Fox Theatre on the night of Nov. 8: a sold-out triple-header featuring Natasha Kmeto, Blockhead and Emancipator. A hopeful attendee offered $80 to anyone with an extra ticket.
Inside, the stage was framed by an array of overlapping white triangles that resemble nine giant arrowheads, or nine arrows pointed skywards.
Natasha Kmento, an electronic producer and vocalist from Portland, Ore., addressed the crowd, then started her set strong — a shuddering whirlwind of sub bass tones swept over the crowd. She then overlaid her strong, R&B style vocals live, controlling both her voice and her music simultaneously. She danced in time — slow, floating between reverbed vocals, clap snares on 5 and 13, and the syncopated sounds of classic drum machines. Her arrangements were clean and refreshing. However, tracks like "A Way to Love Me" are about as lyrically pedestrian as their titles suggest.
Blockhead then took the stage with much applause. His set was full to the brim of his signature left-field, instrumental, bargain-bin hip hop. It was 2004 when Tony Simon (aka. Blockhead) coined this style with his debut album, Music by Cavelight. Now, eight years later, with the release of Interludes after Midnight, Simon continues to develop his unique sound on stage, mixing tracks from his five studio albums with such strange bedfellows as Tears for Fears and The Beatles. He hunched over a glowing laptop as swirls of orange and purple light permeated a crowd that dipped on every downbeat. All of Simon's live renditions are much heavier and much dancier than the album versions - sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Those are the moments that Simon smiled, when a chord change doesn't quite work out, or the bass gets too muddy. A rendition of "Daylight" materialized with a new, catchy bass line that was incredibly viral and danceable — the crowd reacted accordingly. But still, I found myself homesick for the down-tempo, mom-friendly stuff of his albums.
Douglas Appling (aka. Emancipator) took the stage and the crowd immediately pressed into a solid wall of flesh. He was accompanied by Ilya Goldberg, a classically trained violinist who punctuates the deep, voluminous sound of Appling with his simple but tear-wrenchingly beautiful melodies. With hundreds of eyes fixed solidly on the duo, the triangles above their heads came to life, turning from white into a slow, projected mash of mixing colors. Giant speakers overhead blared a surreal mix of synthesizers and instruments like banjo and harmonica and, of course, violin. Emancipator's sound is that of modern American trip-hop. It's the sort of sound that seems equally at home in a car commercial as it does behind closed doors. The whole set was wrapped in a blanket of reverb, the kind that envelopes you entirely, makes you feel warm, safe, friendly. The set was a beautifully produced mix of two albums: 2006'sSoon It will be Cold Enough and 2010's Safe in the Steep Cliffs. Appling and Goldberg have a rare artistic chemistry - they react with each other and seem literate in improvisation. They communicate.
A woman danced with her eyes closed. Another looked like a mermaid and danced like one too. A couple in their 60s commented on the beauty of Goldberg's long, vibrato notes. Then, suddenly, a multitude of triangular Eyes of Providence glared down at the crowd from above, shifting back and forth across the crowd, creating a murmur as chest-rumbling bass drums flowed smoothly under a plucked violin. Just as suddenly, everything dropped out, except for one of Appling's clean bass lines. Goldberg took the opportunity to draw out a meticulously harmonized melody. The crowd erupted and pressed itself even tighter inwards.
As the set finished, the crowd cheered and those closest to the stage hammered their open palms on the stage, begging for more. Emancipator exited. But the duo re-emerged a few minutes later to a palpably excited room. Appling changed the mood entirely with a gut-wrenchingly sub-sonic, four-on-the-floor bass drum, enveloping the packed room. The crowd animated. But soon, magenta and cyan triangles slowly morphed above the duo's head as their pace slowed to a deadening pulse, signaling the end of the show as Goldberg plucked some of the final notes in the encore.
Lights faded up and revealed a smiling and satisfied audience. Three incredibly unique acts, each drawing inspiration from different periods and places, each succeeding in sharing from the different corners of ethereal electronic music. Tech crew in black gathered forgotten drinks and coiled sound cables. And impatient security guards ushered a reluctant crowd towards the front exit, into a cold November night, smiles fading as the cold enveloped them.