Concert Reviews

Mark Farina gets funky at the Fox Theatre with DJ Rootz and Pillowfight

Mark Farina with Pillowfight, DJ Rootz and AA 07.23.10|Fox Theatre

There's a covenant involved when listening to live music: You give your attention and energy to the musician, and in exchange, they provide you with some kind of experience that (IMO) should be crafted to capture that attention and suspend time. Mark Farina never disappoints in this arena, and his supporting acts last night are well on their way to learning this particular brand of magic.

I missed AA but made it to the Fox in time to hear the end of Boulder's DJ Rootz set; he was playing with Sublime's "Summertime," mixing in the lyrics with heavy, distorted bass fluctuating up and down. Although he described himself as an electro/trip-hop DJ, he's has clearly been experimenting with dubstep lately, blending in a relatively slow, intelligent beat with deep, dirty, vibrating basslines and unusual vocal combos (DJ Assault's "Sex on the Beach" remix came into the equation).

It made for an interesting blend, offering up these nearly-R&B ballads with quick, tight synthetic drumlines straight from the opening credits of an '80s movie. On this night, Rootz would build up the energy, frantic and speedy -- reminiscent of happy hardcore, one genre of electronic music I'm glad we don't hear much of these days -- before dropping into slick, dark and dirty tracks to keep the crowd dancing.

Rootz was using a computer and a sampler to create his live PA, which I always find interesting to watch, but I thought he took his build-ups too far to the lighter end of distortion, using noises that reached cartoon-like proportions before returning to his slower, syncopated basslines and beat. He dropped in the opening riffs of the Beastie Boys's "Sabotage," and then mixed it with their later hit, "Intergalactic."

The choice of track was interesting, but Rootz's transitions are not always smooth -- and the problem with using long samples from a well-known song like "Sabotage" is that people begin to want to hear the rest of the song instead of wondering where you'll go next with your sampling. Overall, it was a solid set, but with a little tweaking and improvements here and there, DJ Rootz could turn the solid set into a stellar one.

Colorado dubstep duo Pillowfight took the stage next, trading off at the turntables to throw down crashing, dirty bass and spooky melodies, with ray-gun noises and synthetic, meandering beeps and blips. My favorite track involved a screechy piano line blended with deep, mumbling bass (like a deep-voiced Cookie Monster, trying to communicate from the bottom of a K-hole) and a female vocalist crooning "You got to go" repeatedly.

Pillowfight moved from the darker end of the dubstep spectrum into disco diva mode with even tapping and deep, plodding bass, before dropping into a new track reminiscent of pure hardcore -- not as fast or as hard, but with the same energy and intensity.

The pair picked it up and slowed it down, continuing to play with the first three notes of House of Pain's "Jump Around" before moving into a track with more of a techno feel, squeaky sirens and a slightly steadier beat mixed with shrill, distorted melodies and severe bass. The dance floor was slowly filling up, but Pillowfight was only on for a short half-hour set before it was time for the main event.

Mark Farina didn't waste any time getting on-stage and starting to mix his magic. He's got this penchant for old-school educational speeches, and he opened with one on American waltz, followed by a basic one-two cymbal beat, then dropping in some popping noises before bringing on the deep, driving bass.

The components of his tracks are always deceptively simple; he turns each effect on and off, bringing the noises in and out of the soundscape while the speech continues and a gentle piano line begins describing carefree notes in the air. And then the jazz component enters: The wailing saxophone is insistent on getting people dancing, and it does just that as the clean bell of a xylophone enters the mix.

Farina never disappoints in his buildups and breakdowns, whether he's using a soft voice spewing nonsense jazz or dramatic drums and horns returning to their place in the mix. You don't even miss one of the elements he removes until he brings it back to up the energy a notch, using crashing cymbals and clean basslines, seamlessly blending from one track to the next.

As soon as he hit the decks (so to speak; Farina uses CDs and modern technology instead of sticking to strictly vinyl), the dancefloor filled, and he kept it packed and engaged. When he removed various effects to build up the energy, the audience responded with clapping and noise to encourage him to drop the drumline back into the mix. He loves the uplifted, jazzy saxophone, and I even recognized a track from his famed Mushroom Jazz downtempo/trip-hop series of albums, appropriately sped-up for the audience.

Farina's pounding drum, with its steady rat-a-tats, and wailing sax are an intoxicating combination, and he uses a lot of the aforementioned '50s-style educational speeches or hip-hop or another contribution of some vocal element to tie his style together. The Beastie Boys' "Shake Your Rump" from Paul's Boutique was sampled in this set, as was Gang Starr's "DWYCK" and even some orgasmic moans and wails from a female (Farina's probably the only DJ who can get away with that particular sample without sounding hopelessly cheesy).

Farina wanders all over the place within his own particular style, sometimes choosing blissed-out pure house tracks and sometimes moving toward eerier, spookier, more experimental tracks that he pulls into his jazzy, funky sound. He might mix a high, ululating cry with '80s-style MC samples before bringing in some groovy guitar lines and James Brown crying "Hey hey!" and "Oh hell yeah!" the way only James Brown can. You might hear the Eagles' "Hotel California" (and we did) followed by an authoritative man asking, "What do you know about the piano? Is it difficult to play? Let's find the answer to these and some other questions."

Farina never fails to disappoint when it comes to the covenant of live music, and he likes to wind down his sets by slowing them into the funky, jazzy downtempo/trip-hop of his Mushroom Jazz fame, sending the crowd off riding a warm wave of high that will break gently instead of intensely after all that blissful Chicago-style house. I'm always a bit nervous going to see him, afraid my expectations for his set are perhaps too high this time, but he always manages to meet them.

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I like 75 percent of what dubstep has to offer and loathe the other 25 percent (why should you ruin a perfectly good, dark, syncopated track with the happy-hardcore-style buildups?). And although I am not a fan of progressive house, which seems to dominate the house realm these days, I cut my electronic-music teeth on Chicago house in the midwest. Farina's Chicago roots are refreshingly far from the cheesy, tranced-out progressive house that's so popular today. I heart him. Random Detail: Despite some technical difficulties -- at least twice, Farina's CDs began skipping on him unexpectedly -- the man never lost the crowd's attention; they just waited (impatiently), hooting and hollering for more while he worked the kinks out of his equipment. The man can hold a crowd rapt, that is for certain. By the Way: Last week, in my Global Dance Festival review, I noted Savoy was sampling the Beastie Boys -- and both DJ Rootz and Farina did so again last night. Is this a new trend?

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Amber Taufen has been writing about people, places and things in Denver since 2005. She works as an editor, writer, and production and process guru out of her home office in the foothills.
Contact: Amber Taufen