DJ Shadow at Mill City Nights, 5/2/13
All things being equal, DJ Shadow is better as his job than you are at yours. Thursday at Mill City Nights, the former Joshua Davis drove that point home tenfold with a 90-minute set of songs that were largely unrecognizable to the vast majority of the crowd, but held everyone rapt for the duration despite it.
After briefly explaining what the set was going to be about, he boldly stated, "Notice there's no laptop up here," and then began to build the set essentially by hand; quickly and precisely, like a master chef creating meal for a king.
The bass was so loud at points it was literally tooth-rattling, and it was evident early on that the ultra-underground nature of the songs was of little consequence to anyone. It was largely rooted in hip-hop -- Davis' background -- but there were elements of just about everything else you could think of thrown in as well.
"This isn't about any particular music," he offered a few minutes into the set, "it's about the best beats." Which also brought something else to the forefront: he spoke to the crowd at different points throughout the set, something a DJ hardly ever does, most of them choosing to take on an air of incredible aloofness, rarely even smiling.
He encouraged the crowd to find new music; listen to old music; find a place for music in their lives in any capacity. He's so ahead of the curve in terms of what of-the-moment or brand new it was almost like listening to a time machine in a way. "This isn't some 'Back to the Golden Age' tour," he mentioned at one point, "This is about new. I'm always about new, " at once sounding cocksure and like your best friend.
Pieces of his own songs surfaced here and there, threads in the monstrous tapestry he wove over the course of the night, at one point mashing up his own "...Meets His Maker" from 2002's The Private Press and "Midnight in a Perfect World" from 1996's Endtroducing..... with pieces of roughly three other songs. It illustrated what he does best: everything is cut-and-pasted in a way that makes it seem that, somehow, all the beats are buried under one another, when the truth is you can pick out what's recognizable or pleasing to your ear, and everything will fall into place around it, regardless of how much space it takes up in any particular song.
Most of what Davis was doing was not cut-and-paste, however, and while that was a bit a letdown, watching him basically live remix a good portion of the songs was a more than suitable substitute. The mashups, new beats, and occasional addition of drums from Davis himself pounding on a drum machine continued, and the set began it's final approach with a somehow transcendent back-and-forth containing the Beatles' "Come Together" and Notorious B.I.G.'s "Running Your Mouth," which he constructed in a way that made it seem the passage would end with "Come Together," as he cut the beat and the crowd responded with the chorus from it. Davis playfully shook his finger at the crowd and began again: "All up in my back, trying to take my track," rang out in Biggie's voice instead and in immediate retrospect, it was perfectly correct. It was a version of math turntablism, maybe.
The night ended on the highest of notes, a slightly remixed version of his own "Organ Donor," to which he added the drums himself, once more.
This was what a DJ set should be like, always. Davis was animated and fairly talkative throughout, offering positive vibes and pushing his love of music, encouraging everyone to do the same. Nobody on the planet loves music more than DJ Shadow does, but, then, nobody loves anything the way he loves music.
Personal Bias: I knew what I was walking into (though, it seemed many in the crowd didn't,) and DJ Shadow was someone I had waited a long time to see live. I'm not often impressed as I would hope to be with DJ sets -- especially of this nature -- but I was more than satisfied at the end of the night.
The Crowd: A perfect mix of the types of people Shadow attracts: hipsters, b-boys (and girls), and skate punks.
Overheard in the Crowd: With the bass as a thunderous level for most of the night, it was hard to hear even the person next to you, so not much at all except a lot of cheering on the rare occasions it was relatively quiet.
Random Notebook Dump: This is as animated as a person can get standing behind $15,000 worth of gear, I suppose.