Smith is mighty
Listening to Andy Smith is like living inside a musical riddle, as each song begs the question "What's next?" If last Thursday night was any indication, you'll never be able to answer that question, and you'd be a fool to try. To say that the Portishead DJ is eclectic would not be saying enough, and though you could loosely define Smith as a hip-hop ambassador, he's really a musical chameleon, shapeshifting from one song to the next. One minute he delivers Tribe Called Quest and a breakdancing circle forms in the middle of the floor; the next, he stumps the b-boys and they find themselves doing the helicopter to a strange, '60s lounge version of "Sunshine of Your Love."
ARO.space, Thursday, April 29
Armed with three different stashes of records—including a box of 45s—Smith had the luxury of easing from hip-hop to big beat to odd '60s go-go lounge-pop. Unlike the many DJs who either play all the hits or refuse to play them at all, Smith took the middle ground—though if he did play something recognizable, it was usually a remake or a cover, like Peggy Lee's take on "Dock of the Bay." Or sometimes he would tease the audience with a tidbit it knew and loved before abruptly cutting into some other random record. Smith takes his cue from the greats, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, who would, as Smith described it, "play Kraft-werk alongside James Brown, and then play Gary Numan—and that was called hip-hop."
The DJ wasn't as battle-ready as he's been during past appearances, when he almost seemed to be at war with himself—right hand, meet the left hand—testing which side was more precise and could hold the beat faster. Smith did, however, dabble in a little beat juggling. Indeed, the best moments of the show came when he played two copies of the same record, creating his own loop and carving his own groove out of someone else's work, another trick he said he learned from his turntable forebears. "When Flash took the break and just spun the break back, it was like, 'Wow, he's taking the very, very best part of this music and making something new out of it,'" Smith enthused. "He's taking a little bit and actually recreating it. That was, like, amazing to me—the fact that hip-hop music in the early days was actually taking other records and making another record from them."
Smith may also be the only DJ in the world who can comfortably beat-juggle two house records before slipping on AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" (much to the delight of the dancers, who drank it in like a guilty pleasure). This being a school night, the crowd had thinned out considerably by the end, when Smith sent them home with visions of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" in their heads. In keeping with the other musical riddles Smith spun throughout the evening, you never could have guessed the ending—Portishead's "Strangers"—which received a hero's welcome from the dance floor.
If enough people jump up and down in unison at the Showbox, the floor will actually undulate. Such was the case last Wednesday, when veteran British electronic act Underworld brought its visual-aural spectacle to Seattle for the first time.
Showbox, Wednesday, April 28
As one astute fan observed, "An Underworld show isn't about the songs, it's about the vibe." By this standard, the evening was a smashing success. The crowd—a motley parade that ranged from techno heads to trend geeks to frat boys—was ecstatic (with the exception of one cranky, aging Brit who complained about "typical American Underworld fans with their shite University of Washington educations" before spilling lager, lager, lager on himself). "They rock," was the unassailable logic one audience member used to explain Underworld's appeal. "Seattle is better than San Francisco because we get good international acts coming through," said another dance avid fan. "It's the best scene since the Detroit house scene."
This comment seemed more than just wishful thinking during Underworld's nearly two-hour set in the sold-out, sweaty showroom. Fists pumped in the air—and made the occasional two-digit rock salute—as the trio made its way through tracks from its latest record, Beaucoup Fish, as well as older hits like the New Orderish "Born Slippy" (a.k.a. That Trainspotting Song). The attendant faithful hung on every nuance of Underworld's live mix. Programmers Darren Emerson and Rick Smith rode waves of beats while singer Karl Hyde roamed the stage, delivering his lyrical shards. The event was just as Emerson had described: "a proper jam."