Thursday 22 May
Thursday morning started at a free brunch and symposium at the Detroit Historical Museum, home of the Detroit Techno exhibit that will soon be touring the world. The exhibit was a bit of a let-down, but the talks were really cool:
We stuck around for a few hours, and that evening headed to Necto (F/K/A the Nectarine Ballroom) in Ann Arbor for the Minus party feat. Clark Werner, Magda and Richie Hawtin. Being a former resident of Ann Arbor, this was quite a flood of memories. The Nectarine Ballroom was where I had my first clubbing experience at 14. Turns out that Jeff Mills used to DJ those same nights, although I suspect he was DJing later than the midnight curfew that was the teen-night terminus.
On entry we explored my old haunt. Everything was different. They moved the DJ booth, there was an outdoor deck, and a downstairs area I don’t remember. Magda was playing a groovy set on the main floor while the deck had yet to start. Eventually I persuaded myself to check out Hawtin, just as he was starting. As usual, I persuaded myself it was really captivating for about ten minutes, then my patience was tested in the next ten minutes, then I got bored in the last ten minutes I allowed him. Dare I say it, he is progressifying techno, and that is pretty damn criminal. I’ll still listen to his production, but we’ve known for years that his production and DJing are very different things.
So… it was back out to the deck, where Clark Werner was playing great music, and once again saved the day.
Friday 23 May
On the way in to Detroit we passed Portal, the old home of Submerge at 2030 Grand River, where I played a party with Traxx in August, and where we would see Felton Howard and Rob Hood on Saturday:
After an annual  list BBQ, we headed to the Corktown Tavern to try to take in some of the 7th City Party, but it turned out that they weren’t letting anyone in, so I was off to the Detroit Contemporary. On arrival, Kataconda was playing a mixed CD set, featuring a lot of his own material from CD-R. Really nice stuff! Christian Bloch followed that with a walloping minimal techno set, Wraith followed that with another good techno set, then I came on and played until the police shut us down at 5:00.
Saturday 24 May
After 14 days of US travel I was so ready for this festival to start. Staying at the Omni, I got to see some of Detroit that I wouldn’t usually get to explore. This is a vacant lot on the way, with an east-of-Woodward view of the downtown area:
When I arrived at the festival I immediately wandered to the High Tech Soul Stage, not even knowing that’s where I was at first. They flipped it over the top of the concrete mountain and placed the stage at the bottom of the bowl, rather than beside the river where the old Motor stage used to be.
To my excitement, Recloose was playing much earlier than expected. I watched him for about an hour and a half until it was time to wander over to see Ayro. Unfortunately, Recloose did not have a monitor, and it really showed. As always, his track selection was superb, but the mixing was rather impaired. However, the tracks were nice enough to keep me locked to that stage ‘til he was done, so that says something.
Ayro was wicked. He started out performing by himself, saying a few words, then jumping into a pounding live MPC-2000 percussion solo. This was damn-near dumbfounding. That segued seamlessly into a sequenced beat, at which point he started playing live chords on his Moog. At some point those chords fell into the sequence, and he switched to another keyboard, adding more layers, always doing something live.
Over the course of the next couple of songs he was joined by John Arnold on guitar, his girlfriend and he shared the vocal duties, there was a slew of dancers that worked their way on stage for about ½ the songs, and there was one other guy who helped with percussion duties.
Ayro is so impressive, wearing all of these hats at once – singing masterfully, running across stage to join in the drumming, playing thick keys and orchestrating it all. This was a stunning performance, only slightly tainted by the overwhelming sub-bass that muffled the other frequencies.
One thing that was absolutely non- negotiable for me was Amp Fiddler Live, so by 9:00 I found myself back at the High Tech Soul Stage. He was one of my two favorite shows of the festival. Based on the Bassmentality 12″, his Mahogani record produced by Moodymann, and Love and War, I expected greatness, which he delivered in spades. These songs all soothed with soul and belted with funk. These two (dark) pictures may reveal that there were four keyboards, three keyboardists, a bassist and a drummer on stage.
Amp Fiddler was singing and switching between two different keyboards. It’s hard to articulate what kind of musical dynamic three keyboardists and no guitar brings to live funk. It softens things up, while simultaneously drawing in the percussion of the keys. It’s a really amazing feel. The set was relatively short, at less than an hour, but totally fulfilling.
By this point the festival had started to fill up. We headed to the Movement stage for a nice Kenny Larkin and Kevin Saunderson tag team, which you can witness in the swarms below:
From the close of the first evening at the festival, we headed up to Portal, the old Submerge building I mentioned earlier, where Felton Howard, Rob Hood and the Suburban Knight were playing.
When we arrived DJ Fingers was playing a pretty nice GhettoTek set. Given that the last time I heard GhettoTek it was at the end of ATP, this seemed almost calm by comparison. He only played for a short time before Felton Howard came on. He started out with some house, then suddenly started to pound out the techno. It was a really tight set, and an excellent warm-up for Hood – from what I’m told, much harder than Felton Howard normally spins. This guy is definitely one of Detroit’s best kept secrets.
From my perspective, Hood was the most anticipated show of the festival. I knew to expect a beating, and the first 20 minutes were severe – nary a synth-line in sight, but then there was one, and then a Basic Channel track, and then a tribal techno number with a female house diva, and then he was thoroughly in-stride. I’d had about 10-20 minutes of this satisfaction when he turned down the music, a promoter appeared on stage and asked everyone to leave the building, as the cops would be there in 10 minutes. Most disapointing moment of the festival, but as you can see below, everyone had fun until then, and I doubt I’ll have another opportunity to see Felton Howard any time soon.
Once outside, there were a swarm of people around Hood all telling him how much his music meant to them, asking for autographs, and it wasn’t like the normal fanboy stuff. These guys seriously meant it – you could hear it in the tremble in their voices. I would be hard-pressed to think of another techno artist who is able to singularly top people’s list. He captivates people in a special way.
After that we called it an early (4 or 5 a.m.) night.
Running out of the hotel at around 1:15, I did all I could to make it to the Thinkbox Collective in time. Unfortunately I only caught the last 10 minutes. What I heard was really good though. With so little time for so many artists, they really pulled this together well.
From there, we wandered back to the High Tech Soul Stage for Dabrye and Dwele back-to-back. Dabrye played mostly stuff from his latest album, a few new tracks, but also included a couple of his earlier Tadd Mullinix songs. Nothing that different than any of his performances, but really enjoyable (if deafening) on that sound system.
Dwele was a treat. I still haven’t heard more than five of his songs, but everything he played was brilliant. Again, the multiple-keyboard approach worked wonders. The live band replicated all of the brilliant production on the recordings to a tee (no easy task). Beyond that there was an intense joy in this performance. Dwele seemed so unbelievably happy, and the feeling in his music seemed absolutely genuine in an almost tangible way. Add a great sense of humor and stage presence to that, and you have one helluva performance. What an amazing way to start a beautiful day!
Later that afternoon we again braved the bursting seems of the High Tech Soul Stage, trying to find elbow room for the Detroit Experiment.
Things had fallen behind schedule by this point, and Vikter Duplaix was banging out a furious house set, with extremely tight mixing (to my surprise). Well done to Duplaix for getting his skills up to par for this performance. It was evident he was really excited about it, so I’m glad his DJ skills proved worthy of the honor. The crowd was in a real frenzy by the time he finished.
By this point, I had already witnessed four excellent funk-esque bands in Ayro, Amp Fiddler, Dwele and John Beltran, so it was no shock to the system when the first track they dropped was one of their jazzier tunes. They were even better than the album. The only complaint is that they only played four or five songs, but this was still a solid 45 minutes when factoring in the amount of jamming in each song. ‘Midnight At The 20 Grand’ (which is predictably my favorite track on the album) was so nice. This was all I could’ve expected and more, but just not long enough. Very packed:
When they brought out the MC’s everyone was loving it:
At some point I wound up in the underground stage and snapped this shot of the  list elders:
I managed to miss John Arnold Live (yet another incarnation of the incestuous bunch), in addition to Pole, Akufen, Mike Clark and Francois K, but I did catch the first and last of the 3 (5) Chairs, both of whom were excellent. This was the 5th:
Post-Saturday- night finale, I made my way to the Tangent Gallery for Cannonball Run.
This party was sick:
It was not as crazy as last year, but just as good, if only because I made it until Traxx this year. When we arrived Jordan Zawideh was playing – I remember enjoying it, but can’t recall what it was. The one lo-light of this party was Tamion 12″.The audio for their latest 12″ didn’t sound nearly as bad as they did live. The songs went on for so long (how un-punk) and were so much more tedious than on the record. It was all I could do to sit on a couch and try to block it out. However, they were followed by Carlos Souffront, who played an amazing set as always. I don’t think he pushed it above 110 bpm, and given the dance floor disarray following Tamion 12″, it was incredibly impressive that there wasn’t a mutiny (or rather, that the mutiny was contained). His collection of ‘80s synth mayhem is so impressive. He dropped New Order, as every other time I’ve seen him. You would be hard pressed to find anyone this side of Bernard Sumner who could play it any better.
BMG of Ectomorph was up next. He played an Ableton DJ set. I don’t know if it was sequenced in advance or not, and I really don’t care, because the track selection was so astounding it couldn’t possibly matter. He went through Chicago jack trax to acid to electro, booty, disco, synth-pop and everything in between. It was a truly epic set, covering at least two and a half hours, the last hour of which featured DJ Godfather scratching over the top of it. As you can see, he had the crowd eating out of his hand, even when there was a sort-of DJ pow-wow behind the decks for ages before Derek Plaslaiko came on:
Derek’s set was short – too short, but with Traxx up thereafter, I wasn’t going to complain. He was unbelievable. I’ve never seen a set like it. It’s probably in my top 5 now. He played all EBM and Acid. Chicago meets central Europe in 1986. But he didn’t just pull out an impressive selection of rare dance classics, he pummeled them, and his mixing of those tracks proved to me more than ever that DJing creates something greater than the sum of its parts. He gained so much from his interaction with the mixer.
I’ve seen very few DJ’s who muster half what he put into this set, and the output was storming.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around what he did to me. Somehow at 7:30 in the morning, after cracking open a fresh keg around 6:30, I was still dancing. The 30-40 people left in that room were sharing something so compelling that only a handful left during his two hours, and most stayed for quite a while after he was done.
This set was so thrilling that we made our way to the Corktown Tavern at 8:30 to start DJing.
Got to bed at noon.
Monday 26 May
Woke up at 3:00. Let it be known that the Bacardi and Red Bull tent is still not out of alcohol!!!
I was not in a hurry to see anything until Dan Bell came on at 8. Basically, Traxx had satisfied me, and anything after that was icing. But we still wandered over to the High Tech Soul stage for Aril Brikha as Time:Space live. Once again the incest was perpetuated, with Ayro on keys, Tony Drake on bass, and that percussion dude on the bongos again, while Aril Brikha was the master controller. This was really nice stuff. Departure in Time live was sick. It was really cool to hear the instrumentalist’s take on what starts out as such a synthetic project. The conversion to live instrumentation was executed very well.
After managing to miss Dan Bell and catch D Wynn, Mills was unfortunately a blur.
The last party of the weekend was the KMS offering at The Works. The music was amazing. Juan Atkins, and KDJ were the special unannounced guests. By the time Ron Trent came on, I was running back and forth between him in the back and KDJ in the front room. It’s hard to sum this up too precisely, but it was a pretty fantastic finale – not as intense as Ron Trent’s set to close out last year, but KDJ was almost as on as at the Sound Signature party two years earlier. He even played a bunch of Chicago jack and acid. I heard a lot of that this weekend. Sometime near 5 or 6 we left, closing out another amazing festival in Detroit. These pictures (most of them taken after 4am) ought to sum up the evening relatively well, since words and memories have failed:
All told, it was as good as the 2nd year, and only topped by the 1st. Amazing that they did it with no budget at all. As the flip side of that foam hand above said, “Drama free since ’03”. That definitely summed it up.
Other festival reports here.