Review: RJD2 at Bluebird Theater, 1/27/12
Is it just us, or does RJD2 look more like R2D2 every time we see him? Last night, when he took to the small, technology-overwhelmed stage of the Bluebird , the DJ/producer was barely recognizable behind a Daft Punk-style robot mask and the sound effects box strapped to his waist like an oversized graphing calculator. Like his name-alike, it was even tough to understand him: Between the crowd's echoing applause and his muttering about "the future," his clearest announcement was a promise to play "funky ass shit." So about seven seconds later -- the time it took him to remove the mask and re-humanize himself -- he did.
Other than a newish album, 2010's The Colossus, and a round of updated backing video, the Philadelphia think tank's show has remained relatively unchanged for years. Like Girl Talk, the campier, glitchier producer he is often compared to, this is a performance that depends largely upon preparation and timing, though it relies much more heavily on technical DJ skills.
Onstage, a very human Ramble John Krohn manipulates four turntables, an impressive stack of vinyl and various effects setups for roughly an hour and a half. Backlit in alternating red, blue and green, the spread is as much a part of the show as its puppet master. In order to scratch on one turntable and adjust the sound on another, Krohn must stretch the entirety of his wingspan without looking at either machine, a frequent and impressive feat that speaks to the level of practice behind his performance.
The lines are blurry here: It's not technically a live show, though he does much of the sound manipulation onstage (and on camera), but the level of technical proficiency takes it beyond just a dance set. Peering down from the Bluebird's quickly clam-baked balcony provides the best view of the mix: RJD2 is a low-energy, high-output show with the reckless ebb and flow of sold-out dance floor abandon to prove it.
There's room for you to lurk next to the amps, and there's room for you to flip your shit in the front row. You can practice your club moves, shake out your post-disco moves or whip your hips through some go-go moves. You can wear a Flogging Molly shirt. You can smoke a joint, and you can, like the man in front of me, decline one in order to "focus on the experience." Some people seemed to just be watching his backing video in earnest, as if they were at a film screening.
The end result is somewhere between a listening party and a house party, and it's a surprisingly seamless combination. Between songs, Krohn grabs new records in quick if seemingly random succession, and while there is no lull in his act there is also little tension. Behind him, projected on a massive video screen, constant and wildly schizophrenic clips of saturated Bollywood, black-and-white horror, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Boondock Saints, the most awesome battles of The Matrix and that scene in The Godfather where Sonny Corleone is shot down at a tollbooth. At his set's beginning, the sound waves were paired with a picnic scene that quickly got freaky: After repeatedly zooming close to and far away from our happy couple as if from a satellite, the crowd was taken way, way closer -- to the cellular level of their skin.
But it is watching Krohn himself that provides the best fodder for freak-out. "When you see shit and hear it at the same time, there's synergy in your brain," he informed the crowd. The audience needed only to wait four songs before hearing his biggest hit, Mad Men theme song "A Beautiful Mine," during which his hands slowed down the most they would all night. For the rest of the evening, they took rapid turns on camera, flipping this, poking this, scratching that and moving closer and closer toward carpel tunnel while playing a frenzied game of musical Bop-It.
Krohn knows when to let his tracks relax ("The Horror"), when to have fun with them (an impromptu crack at the Super Mario Bros. theme, played with a stuffed Mario doll) and when to amp them into oblivion ("Good Times Roll, Pt. 2"). With a Moog-propelled soundscape backed by hip-hop aesthetic and the rapid-fire influx of guitar and bass, this is a night out, not a night in. You would be foolish to forget that and waste the results.
Personal Bias: Listening at home, I'm a moderate RJD2 fan. Dancing at concerts, I'm a big one.
By the Way: Someone should start an accompanying electronic act called C-JPO. Eventually, of course, the two would combine, invest in costumes and become the American version of Daft Punk. Actually, let's not do that. In fact, forget I even suggested it.
Random Detail: Because RJD2 is one of a small handful of modern electronic phenoms who still relies heavily on vinyl, it's easy to ignore how much technology backs his act. ("Am I still, like, a fucking dinosaur for using records and shit?" he asked the audience.) But the reality was obvious early on, when, as his backing screen rolled down behind him to start the show, it fronted an error message: "No-Signal. Source: Video." It's still 2012, y'all.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.