Moby Brings His Record Collection on Tour with Area:One

Johnny Loftus

CHICAGO – Delays, traffic jams, and a general lull in performance was felt throughout Chicagoland Wednesday, as thousands of coffee shops, fast food restaurants, and service industry positions were severely understaffed. The ramifications of the epidemic were widespread, as the working public found its daily routine severely hampered by longer lines at Starbucks, hastily constructed Subway sandwiches, and shoddy, overworked customer service at Target. It was later discovered that in each case, harried supervisors had found themselves pressed into service as baristas, sandwich artists and stockboys, after over half their adolescent workforce failed to appear for work Wednesday. Reports of Road Rage were up, and general performance was sluggish.

Meanwhile, at the Tweeter Center in south suburban Chicago, Moby’s Area:One Festival plugged in for the day, and 20,000 kids made the cops nervous.

Moby makes clear his reasoning behind Area:One’s eclectic lineup at “There is a lot of music in the world that I love that does not always get the appropriate exposure.” Moby’s influence is obvious. In essence, the festival attempts to bring to the masses the club culture in which Moby began, while embracing influences of Hip Hop and alternative rock that have contributed to the larger cultural acceptance of his recent music. As such, the lineup was like hearing Moby’s latest mix tape, while driving around in his Grand Turismo. In the Ford Focus tent (a bizarre mix of corporate and counter-culture last observed at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival), top tier DJs like Paul Oakenfold, Carl Cox, Timo Maas and The Orb shared the decks with Detroit Techno pioneers Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson (performing as the Innovators). Meanwhile, on the main stage, organic diva Nelly Furtado opened a day of music that would feature The Roots, soulternative rockers Incubus, the stanky funk of Outkast, and finally Moby himself, who would prove to be an unassuming host, still grappling with his newfound role as a rock star.

While it remains a cultural force in the UK and Europe, club culture has never enjoyed more than an underground following in the US. Barring the occasional news story about a busted rave or token warnings against Ecstacy use by the mainstream US media, true dance music has kept a pretty low profile domestically. That said, it’s one of the last places where a kid can be a kid – you know, rebel. Punk rock has been co-opted. Hippy culture is a joke, awash in tired cliches of patchouli and tie-dye. But in the subterranean, smoky world of dance culture, a kid can find something unknown by the middle managers, guidance counselors, and oblivious parents. It is a world ruled by the DJ, a solitary figure behind the wheels of steel, who bends and shapes his audience with the help of other peoples’ music and a million watts of power. Glitter, tent-like pants, glow sticks: these are the mohawks, safety pins, and spiked wristbands of club culture.

On Wednesday, electronica ruled, and the sponsors knew it. Despite the confluence of sounds and demographics available to them at Area:One, the corporate presence was preoccupied with elements of dance culture. Intel found a nice tie-in. “The Area:One Music Festival will be a unique showcase for the evolution of music and technology,” explained John Travis, director of Worldwide Consumer Promotions for Intel. “These artists live out the same innovation and excitement that the Intel Pentium 4 processor brings to home computer users and music enthusiasts.” Information kiosks (read: ads) were designed in a proto-technical manner that emulated the sharp angles and shiny florescence of electronic music. Intel’s Digital Music Zone looked like a 5th century Hun dwelling re-imagined by Industrial Light & Music. Ford Motor Co. is no stranger to electronica. It tapped Juan Atkins’ “No UFOs” as the soundtrack for its Ford Focus ad campaign, and was a major contributor to this year’s Detroit Electronic Music Festival. The convergence of corporate brand strategy and dancefloor culture in the Ford Focus tent was an amazing (and odd) sight, but one that Ford somehow seems to have succeeded with. At the same time, the presence of KMX energy drink at Area:One was pure, un-cut culture terrorism. While energy drinks have for years been associated with rave culture in Europe (late nights, you know), they have only recently broken through in the US, with their more potent mixtures being quite popular in the taverns. In an ingeniously tacky move, KMX employed a gang of nubile young women to serve the iridescent orange product to festival goers in the same skinny vials that are used in bars to serve fruity alcoholic shots. Throw in the obligatory presence of MTV, and the area between the Ford Focus tent and main stage was a carnival midway of corporate brands desperately trying to make a lasting impression with their target market. Area:One’s sponsors could never hope to fully understand club culture; but they know its tenets suggest the trends and styles that will be cool next summer.

Incubus’ style (think Jane’s Addiction meets RHCP meets Deftones) is more ranging than moaning OzzFest counterparts like Papa Roach, Stain’d, or Drowning Pool, but the fact that they have risen to fame on the coattails of the Nu Metal movement makes their Area:One appearance a bit suspect. It’s not Moby’s fault; even he can’t persuade venue owners that Timo Maas is a household name. And though he and Outkast are both major draws in the current pop climate, it’s understandable that the least annoying of the Aggro-Metal crooners was asked to appear at Area:One. For their part, a shirtless Brandon Boyd and friends put together a serviceable set of “Mountain Song” covers, featuring strong percussion by drummer Jose Pasillas. Boyd even got to play a little bongo drum, to make those groupies swoon. Following Incubus on the main stage was the southern-style antics of Outkast. Launching immediately into “Gasoline Dreams,” Stankonia‘s fiery leadoff track, Dre and Big Boi then led their 5-piece backing band into 1996’s “ATLiens,” and had the crowd on its feet. Not content to rely on the hackneyed precepts of live Hip Hop (“throw your hands in the air!”;”Let me hear you say ‘AAAAHHH!!!'”), Atlanta’s finest rap crew displayed the range of influence in their sound with ease. 70’s soul, P-Funk, and an almost Vaudevillian stage presence helped to illustrate why some Hip Hop is stuck in a rut of its own making (shout-out to Sean Combs!), while some continue to innovate and educate.

A DJ is only as good as his last breakbeat. Unlike a band with a traditional frontman, or even the obvious stage presence of MCs like Big Boi and Dre, a DJ can be a somewhat clandestine existence. While his actions are the center of attention, the music and beats are the star of the show. He is at once visible and invisible, using his skills as a turntablist to constantly win over the audience. While the main stage performers suffered through horrible sound (courtesy of the Tweeter Center’s moronic shed design), the long, snaking line to enter the Focus tent alluded to its thoughtful setup. Inside, the DJ booth was at the extreme opposite end from the entrance, surrounded by filament-thin video screens and towering speaker banks that sounded incredible. Once inside the tent, it was impossible not to be overtaken by the experience of hearing a premier DJ at the top of his game. Upon entering the tent for Paul Oakenfold’s set, he dropped a killer breakbeat that brought up a series of swirling orange lights. On cue, 2,000 kids’ glow sticks went into full spinning action, suggesting a euphoric time lapse photo in real time. Both Oakenfold and Carl Cox proved their marquee status with athletic sets showcasing their love of House, Techno, and everything in between. At one point during Oakenfold’s set, the monstrous video monitor behind his solitary form found a line of fans in the audience, bending at their wastes in unison with the music – dancing to while worshipping at the altar of the man behind the wheels of steel. If Oakenfold had leapt into the crowd like a singer in a Rock and Roll band, the pulsating hands and bouncing feet would have supported his weight above them. And in a nod to the Innovators (Derrick May, Jaun Atkins, Kevin Sauderson), Oakenfold wore a T-shirt bearing the logo of the Motor Lounge, a club residing in the ancestral home of Techno, Detroit, Michigan.

Moby is an unlikely hero. A small, balding, vegan instrumentalist, Moby was the private product of the underground dance community for most of the late 80s and 90s. While his soundtrack work brought him a bit of notoriety, no one – least of all the artist himself – could have imagined the success that a few corporate licensing agreements would bring him. After 1999’s Play became the most licensed record of all time, Moby’s take on downtempo etherea blew him up TRL style. A collaboration with Gwen Stefani here or there, and suddenly a quiet DJ from the East Village has enough money and clout to put together one of the most ambitous package tours of the past few years. So at the end of the day, when Moby finally took the stage in a lightshow worthy of the Alan Parsons Project, it was interesting to see him – a small, balding, vegan instrumentalist playing songs for 20,000 kids who thought he fell to earth a few months ago. And he said as much. Stopping often between numbers to conversed amiably with the audience, Moby turned a wondrous eye on his fame, expounding about the sense of power one feels, standing with a guitar on a huge stage. To illustrate his point, he cranked his Marshall stack and peeled off a weedly-weedling guitar solo worthy of everyone’s hair rock hero, Eddie Van Halen. In between chats, Moby was a poster child for Speed, leaping between samplers, keyboards, and guitars as his band laid down a frenetic, lightshow infused groove. With English vocalist Diane Charlemagne (remember Goldie’s “Inner City Life”?) performing live many of the Americana samples from Play, that record’s signature sound was expanded to help it play out in the expanse of the venue. Hits like “Bodyrock,” “Natural Blues” and “Honey” were obvious crowd pleasers, but the kids were also receptive to his older, more straightforwardly techno offerings. It would have been nice to hear his rendering of Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” but it was not to be. Instead, Moby turned up the distortion for “Southside,” bringing out Canadian pixie chanteuse Nelly Furtado as a stunt Gwen. After thanking his band, his fellow peformers, and the audience, Moby finished off Area:One with a Kraftwerk-ian display of distopian weirdness. Standing shirtless on his keyboard as the lightshow turned and twisted with his song’s monolithic beats, Moby yelped one last nervous “Thank you, Goodnight!” and ran off the stage. He probably dreamed of saying that from a big stage, too.


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