Another Friday night has lurched awake here at Oakland’s 21 Grand, where a sizable crowd of tight-sweatered coolio types sits cross-legged on the floor, clutching forties of Miller High Life while staring at a projection screen showing grainy black-and-white footage of slaughterhouse workers eviscerating cows.
Backing track: “The Sound of Silence.”
Hello weirdness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again. On this evening 21 Grand is playing host to Dali’s Car, a Vegas-style revue of electro-avant experimentation curated by the actually quite spectacular Anticon robo-funk outfit Restiform Bodies. Around them orbit several moons’ worth of iconoclastic IDM dudes and laptop-rockin’ funkateers, some wildly drunk, some airily sober.
First up: Oakland’s own Change! At present a one-man operation, Change! wears Bootsy Collins’ audacious silver-star-shaped sunglasses and Vincent Price’s morose facial expression. He is armed with a laptop, oh yes, from which blares factory-issue melodic techno as he lumbers through the mostly-still-seated crowd, and sings as he brandishes some sort of hand-held percussion instrument, waving it over our heads as though baptizing us.
Thus anointed, several folks in the crowd respond by snapping pictures of Change! with their camera phones. Catherine Zeta-Jones would approve.
But would George Michael? Adding to his strange instrumentation — a toy megaphone here, a dulcimer there — Mr. Change! admits that one of his tunes was inspired by Wham!’s video for “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Surprisingly, this is probably not ironic. Despite the whiff of pretentiousness and somewhat forced bizarreness of it all, at heart Change! delivers atmospheric-heavy dream-pop perfect for the Lost in Translation soundtrack, or perhaps a hypothetical dope-smoking scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He’s really just Galaxie 500x + 3/4p – 18265. No objections here.
Sagan, made up of solo artiste Lesser and glitch guru Blevin Blectum (formerly one half of Blectum from Blechdom) onstage — plus videographer/projectionist Ryan Junell off — drains most of the pop from this scenario, but adds trippy visuals that happily avoid bovine decapitation. The group’s set appears at first to be a clichéd two-people-sitting-in-a-corner-onstage-surrounded-by-fancy-equipment affair, with dueling video screens running at full power to combat the audience boredom that very well might’ve resulted.
It’s an old trick — weird videos as distraction to boring music — that Sagan thankfully has no interest in pulling. Instead, the onstage duo builds up a fragile Jenga tower of claustrophobic and clangy electro beats, subverting the old signal-to-noise equation by manipulating noises until they literally turn into signals. And the video screens, which depict some sort of “Guy with Knife chasing Guy with Gun” altercation, actually add to the music for once: Every now and then Guy with Gun kicks a bottle across a concrete lot, and the sound resonates right there in 21 Grand, mingling with and perfectly complementing the beats.
Finally a great “multimedia” project as opposed to the infinitely more popular many-sucky-medias-combined project.
But at their base, these acts still amount to weird visuals and inexpressive folks manipulating mixers and laptops. There’s a profound barrier this IDM stuff struggles to overcome: the rock-out performance aspect, the showmanship, the organic connection decades of Rock Worship have taught us to forge with undulating dudes brandishing guitars. It’s not your average compu-rocker’s fault, but it is your average compu-rocker’s problem.
Books on Tape, another one-man-band — this one hailing from Los Angeles — handles this thorny issue by acting like an old-guard rock star. Specifically, he was spectacularly drunk, stumbling onstage and immediately lurching into the back wall projection screen as though it were a giant catcher’s mitt. This both endears him to us and helpfully numbs his hands, a useful effect when your set largely consists of physically pounding on a cafeteria table’s worth of guitar pedals.
Mr. BoT’s shtick: Turning to his left, he daintily and delicately cues up tracks on his mixer, the beat-up “Death to the Pixies” sticker on its side nicely underscoring the aerobic, gleefully violent arena electronica that emerges from it. On his right-hand side, he enacts phasers and distortion and all manner of bells and whistles by pounding on the guitar pedals with his bare hands. There is a word for this, and that word is “hilarious.” Even the scowly dude in the Anticon hoodie next to me grins like an idiot.
God bless this man: A paradigm-subverting avant-gardist with sloppy flair and personality, even if it’s only the booze talking. The dude is mesmerizing, right up to the moment when, inevitably, all his increasingly out-of-control pedal-whacking compels him to accidentally knock about half his equipment off the table.
“I may have broken my shit,” BoT concludes five minutes later, “but that’s my set.”
Righteous. As are Restiform Bodies. My notes during their showstopping headlining performance are as follows: Restiform. K-K-K-K-Mart, oh yeah! RADIO SHACK. Giddy man shot out into space. Machines = human.
I have no idea what any of this means. But everyone, however strange and garbled their attempts to process it, inwardly senses the ease with which these guys throw 21 Grand’s staid guerrilla gallery atmosphere into absolute space-age chaos, finally and gloriously building the bridge between acres of expensive-looking, high-concept sound equipment (they’ve got it) and simple good-timey party-rockin’ jams (they play ’em). It’s like A.I.: Artificial Intelligence crossed with Flashdance, or Anticon’s now-familiar thinly layered rapping style slapped onto huge chunks of interstellar R&B.
When you watch a guy banging on computerized drum pads and you don’t want to punch his lights out, you know you’ve found something special. Lo: Cold technology can deliver warm exhilaration, and experimental rock can deliver dumb fun.
Just one act left: NYC’s Alan Astor, a funky-lookin’ ’80s-throwback party boy brandishing one of those badass guitar-keyboard hybrids from the era when MTV still played videos. An A for effort, Alan, but we’d already shed our apprehension and shame, and slid into the Oakland night like bovine spirits freed from our cumbersome cow bodies.