How much can one know about a concert and still be able to watch it with next to no expectations? Plenty, if “Perfecto on Tour” is any indication. For the uninitiated, Perfecto is the alter ego, oft-used remix title, and record label of club DJ Paul Oakenfold. Raised in London, first trained in New York, and inspired in Ibiza, no less of an authority than the Guinness Book of World Records pins on Oakie the title of “world’s most successful DJ.”
Can’t imagine why? He only started out as a U.K. rep for American hip-hop acts like Salt’n’Pepa. He later became a primary importer of Ibiza’s Balearic sound to the rest of Europe’s (later America’s) club scene. Then producer of Happy Mondays’ Pills’n’Thrills’n’Bellyaches album; remixer for New Order, the Cure, the Rolling Stones, Snoop Dogg and more; opening act for U2 during their Zooropa world tour; the first DJ on Glastonbury’s main stage; soundtrack contributor for The Matrix Reloaded, Collateral, Signs, Shrek 2, etc.; reality TV subject; and Grammy nominee.
Yadda yadda yadda; anyone can pick this stuff up off of a press release. For all of O’s exposure someone with wide — not deep — knowledge of electronic music might have difficulty picking his mixes out of the crowd, or matching tracks from a CD set to those in a live one. It approaches becoming a quiet commentary: is dance music, or at least Oakenfold, flooding the market to the point where new developments blend uncomfortably with the past?
Similar questions could be asked of Philadelphia, and the venue for this particular point on Oakenfold’s yellow brick road. The tour stop called Emerald City is a relatively new private club venue shoehorned into a nondescript industrial office box. With jagged holes in cinder-block walls serving as private doorways, and loading dock gates opened up for ventilation, at first it comes off more like Barry Levinson’s Oz than Judy Garland’s.
To its credit, however, Emerald City attempts to add a bit of bling in the form of elaborately painted walls and ceilings, lit draperies, and screens showing obtuse eye candy like Will Smith’s “Switch” video, glitched. The first and smallest of Emerald City’s three rooms was relatively well-lit. It might have been considered a chill-out lounge had the house DJ not been front and center, playing storming hardcore and drum’n’bass.
The second runs along much of the back side of the site and is the main dance area. It features your standard-issue big light show and disco ball, plenty of comfy canoodling couches, and a two-person digital DJ setup tucked neatly in the corner. A rotating crew of local and house spinners brewed a fine blend of trance for a crowded dance floor. The third is announced in neon as a private area, but on this night the sign is mere decoration.
A bar bleeds into a performance area to the left, like a capital letter L. The edge of a stage, half of the amp setup, and tall pillars with security gating between them force concertgoers down a cattle-chute. Once they reach the last pillar, they can circle around to face the stage and its brightly painted DJ booth, set back maybe a bit too far from the madding crowd. Here, homage is paid to the men behind the curtain of their favorite grooves: Sasha, Timo Maas, the Roots and, tonight, Perfecto.
Of course, what is a show without supporting acts? Oakenfold put together arguably the biggest all-DJ tour of the summer — maybe the year — by inviting the likes of Deep Dish, Ferry Corsten, Armin Van Buuren, Junkie XL, and Hernan Cattaneo to perform with him on dates throughout the U.S. and the world at large. Although his selection as the Emerald City opener makes one consider filing a missing persons report on Josh Wink, Liquid Todd landed in Philadelphia like a tornado-tossed house on the Wicked Witch of the East.
Liquid Todd has spent the last decade spinning remixes, breaks, and altogether stunning dance music on American radio (terrestrial and satellite), and the last four years opening up for Oakenfold off and on. While he has the skills and pedigree to comfortably dominate a marquee, he seems even more at ease as part of a team. Whether he’s with an on-air MC, alongside a studio recording partner, or sharing a stage with other DJs, Liquid Todd can put together headliner-worthy sets even if he’s just warming things up.
Todd may have been behind the decks as fans made their way through Emerald City’s performance space, but his set began rather innocently with the house lights quietly going down and the dance lights going into motion as the mix continued. A sample exhorted the crowd, “Use your metabolism,” signaling the start of a long workout for undulating bodies and twirling glowsticks. There is something to be said for a place and a performer that can fill a floor at 12:30 a.m. without a headliner in sight.
A version of Underworld’s classic “Cowgirl,” with even more thundering bass and percussion (if that’s possible), emphasized the overriding theme of Liquid Todd’s main set. Scattered among the quality breaks were musical heavy-hitters, no-name tunes rubbing shoulders with remixed superstars. Given the chance to follow the credo of another sample and “Do what I please/ Call all the shots,” Todd used electrified revisions of the Hives, New Order, even Yes in the mix, guaranteeing crowd response to the beats, the bands, or both.
Liquid Todd smartly used rock stars to whip the crowd into a frenzy. Oakenfold, the night’s own rock star, followed up 45 minutes of brains with over two hours of heart. With the same appreciation (dare we say love?) of trance that informs even his latest releases, Perfecto Presents…The Club and Paul Oakenfold: Creamfields, Oakenfold put the “deep” into deep house, trance, electro, and everything else he dug out of his crates.
Yes, there were points where he would sit back and take a laissez-faire approach, watching the throbbing masses fly headlong past lubrication and straight towards saturation with the sweat of a sultry July night. Then he would calmly get into the groove, waving his hands both with and at the crowd. He knew just when to get back to the actual mix, often wearing his monitor headphones across his face, taking on the appearance of some futuristic placekicker.
Like a good pro wrestling match, Oakenfold provided plenty of drama-building false finishes, including doses of heavy ambience before not-quite-final pounding, shrieking statements. Vinyl sides and mp3s, all nearly anonymous save for their arrangements of particular beeps, were given a purposeful pulse under his guiding hands. In the entire set, Oakenfold only spun one song vaguely recognizable to this author: a recent instant classic in a minor key, introduced near the end of the evening.
That is no indication that Oakenfold was better than Liquid Todd or vice versa, merely different. While Todd played up the zing factor with his remixes, there was some level of discovery in Oakenfold’s set, a sense that the steady stream of peaks and occasional restful valleys was new and fresh to the observer, like the musical equivalent of their first multiple orgasm.
So, to answer the question posed earlier: It is entirely possible that, at least when it comes to distribution of songs, artists, and representative mixes, trance and similar genres are being hampered by the existence of too much of a good electronic thing. Even the biggest talents are starting to sound the same, and maybe it is no longer an attractive option for fans to try to pick out and pick up the best of the best. DJs and the music they spin are also more visceral and exciting in a live setting, as DJs’ marketable musical talent consists of not just technical skill but tastemaking that can change on a near-nightly basis.
The great contradiction is that Paul Oakenfold and other artists, when recorded, may be part of electronica’s problem, but in the DJ booth they are an enthralling solution. For Perfecto, and maybe dance music in general, there’s no place like the road.
All photos by Adam Blyweiss