DJ Shadow at the Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto, Nov. 12.
It’s the conundrum that’s plagued deejays since time immemorial: how to approach the live show? You can go the ‘no tricks, play it like the album,’ route, which works fine (might be preferred) for a live band, but not so much for a genre built in the studio. Your other option is to go the ‘complete redo’ option, which would abandon the studio arrangements in favor of new ones unique to the live experience, which then runs the risk of alienating an audience that has an intimate familiarity with the recorded versions of the songs.
For his 2010 tour, the man born Josh Davis and better known as your Favourite DJ Saviour took the latter route, an ambitious decision that may have ultimately left me a little colder on the experience that I would have expected.
Not going to the show wasn’t ever an option. My love has been well documented here and I’ve stuck by him for all of his zigs and zags his career has taken in the years since he invented a genre. Having seen his live DVD, I thought I was prepared for what I would see last Friday, but if there was one message Shadow wanted to get across it was, ‘Trip-Hop is dead. Long live…..jungle…?’
After introducing the proceedings by stepping into the sphere (details on that in a bit) and playing a musical introduction I can only pray is featured on his upcoming album, the familiar ‘–roducing’ dropped followed by the familiar piano tinkling of ‘Building Steam with a Grain of Salt,’ a move the capacity crowd at the Phoenix enthusiastically supported. Those piano tinkles were the only element that stayed familiar, as an alternate beat escalated into a hyperkinetic jungle rhythm, a tempo the show averaged for the rest of the night. Which, frankly, was a little disappointing.
I agree with Shadow’s thinking that playing the songs straight would have been a little lame. But having seen the performance on his ‘In Tune and On Time‘ DVD, that’s what I was expecting, more of a mashing up of his catalog, taking familiar elements from songs, chopping them up and reorganizing them into something new. I wasn’t prepared for such a wholesale reconstruction of his music.
Despite whatever quibbles I might have with the audio component of the show, the visuals were unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Shadow is clearly someone who knows a DJ has to step his game up to keep the visuals from being some guy standing at the decks, regardless of how prodigious the cutting and scratching may be, and he’s always gone above and beyond to turn a DJ set into a full-on mixed media experience. The Shadowsphere is like nothing he’s attempted before, as he performs the bulk of the show from inside a six-foot ball, occasionally rotating it to let the crowd see the workings taking place inside. When closed, the sphere becomes everything from a space shuttle (complete with customized images announcing it’s Toronto landing, nice touch); to a static ball from a science center; to basket, base, soccer and billiard balls; to a human eye (a moment I’m sure freaked the shit out of the more narcotically inclined members of the audience) to the freakin Death Star.
At times the backdrop and the sphere interacted independently of each other, giving the illusion the ball was being chopped in half by a chainsaw or laser engraved by manufacturing robots, all flawlessly in time with the audio components of the show, making for an experience that was never just a guy playing records, however they were remixed.
Interestingly enough, after the first hour or so of the set, closing with a fairly straight reconstruction of ‘Organ Donor,’ he came back for an encore of ‘High Noon,’ ‘Six Days,’ and ‘Blood on the Motorway’, still chopped up and reorganized but closer to the originals than anything played before them. It was like he was rewarding the crowd for staying with him through the chaotic hour that preceded it. And it was in those moments that despite how shocking it might have been to have the music presented to me like that, at the end of the day I was watching one of my favourite artists of all time scratch his fucking ass off as one of my favourite songs by him threatened to cave my skull in. I really had nothing to complain about.
But damn, dude. No Number Song?!