(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, March 16, 2015

Concert review - Beardyman with Shank Aaron and Sureshot

13 March 2015 (Beta Nightclub, Denver CO)


I've been to my share of nightclubs, but I'm much more a denizen of the bar show and concert hall. Unfortunately, DJ sets and electronic acts are always a bit out of their element at concert venues when they try to recreate the dance club/rave feel. It's hard to overcome the wrong geometry, the lack of a real dance floor, and a very different atmosphere.

By contrast, catching Beardyman at Beta delivered the genuine dance club experience. They had the lighting setup, including lasers and a pixelated display around the DJ, not to mention a sound system capable of massaging internal organs with bass throb. While the show never caught the wild rave feel of a Beats Antique or Glitch Mob show, Beta was a decent venue. Unlike most of the clubs I've been to, the space was voluminous and could have accommodated a much larger crowd; the dance floor was fairly full, but the back and edges offered plenty of room to move around.

The first thing to remember is that this evening was all about the club vibe rather than a concert. So, there were no breaks or rests as one DJ melted into another. Sureshot led off with fairly standard set of electronic mood music, but he never even spoke to the crowd. The transition to Shank Aaron picked things up a bit, with a harder edge bass and a buddy on the mic, but the emphasis remained on driving the insistent beat and keeping people moving.

Soaking in the experience on the dance floor, it reminded me about the power of variable-interval reinforcement schedules. Okay, I lost a few of you there. This is what makes gambling, email, and Candy Crush Saga so addictive: a stable pattern interrupted with tiny rewards. The DJs provided this by constantly manipulating the sonic signature with grinding bass or free-fall washes, all without dropping the beat. Each novel twist -- is that the sound of industrial robot mating calls? -- triggered a new wash of dopamine and flush of satisfaction. In the club sensorium, where the volume dominated and the visuals provided pseudo-random shifts, the effect was electric. The only real way to react was to move and dance, and there was joy in that surrender.

Beardyman slipped into the booth at the end of Shank Aaron's set and did his systems check while the final changes propagated through the mix. But once he took up the reins, the difference was huge as he demonstrated the difference between mere DJ and performer. It wasn't just how he layered his vocal loops to create an order of magnitude more complexity; it was his playful sense of improvisation and the amount of personality he injected. He warmed up by showing off some of his musical chops, then he got on the mic and riffed for a while on Denver, mentioning his last tour through here that ended early when he got sick. Then, apropos of nothing, he shot off on a tangent. He mentioned, "I probably shouldn't have taken that acid 30 minutes ago," which pulled its comic effect from the vocal mutation that added the requisite disconcerting echoes and pitch shifts. It was a cheap gag, but it worked to loosen up the crowd.


It was interesting to contrast this nightclub experience with his more concert-oriented shows. He never got quite as antic or creative because he kept the set in full service to the dance floor, but the performance element distinguished Beardyman from his more prosaic competition. It's not just that he was live looping the mix and tweaking vocal samples on the fly to create his grooves, it's how he toyed with the electronic dance structure and kept his audience off balance. If the normal dance club formula builds on short attention span twists on the beat, Beardyman upped the ante by whipsawing his set between inciting the crowd with intensely powerful rhythms and then shattering the mood with comic or surprising side trips. So, he broke up the heavy pounding beat with an introspective instrumental piano interlude that was disrupted yet again when it picked up a grinding dubstep bass. Later, a bouncy pop song was deconstructed and deformed into weirdness. But he never forgot his milieu, pushing the dancers into constant motion. He also handled these shifts organically as he flowed between them.

Throughout the night, he made it clear that all of his set was relatively improvised, sometimes with subtle moves, like lyrical riffing specific to Denver, but just as often by overtly bragging about it and explaining what he was doing in a sing-song dancehall style voice.  This looseness meant that he could build up some elaborate ideas, but then abandon them if they didn't connect as well. Having seen some of his other performances, there were some familiar bits, although they had their own flavor here. One of these, "Ghost Town" by The Specials, reworked  the uneasy darkness of the tune until it unwound into glitched out blocks of tone.

This show at Beta wasn't as polished or clever as that Seattle show linked earlier, but it was exactly what the venue called for. It was a full night of tribal dance rites powered by visceral bass and tight syncopation, and Beardyman's special touch made it something to talk about afterwards, trading memories of odd references and riffs.

(Note: Lighting and logistics made it hard to get any other usable photos) 

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