Review: DJ Spooky at Astroland, 7/8/11

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Update (7/11/11, 11:26 a.m.): Kate Lesta of CMNKY has advised us that DJ Spooky did not perform for charity, and that he was, in fact, paid to perform at Astroland, which is not a BYOB venue, as described, but stresses that "It's a Substance Free venue. All Ages, DIY community run venue. Alcohol is not welcome, not even on a BYOB basis."

On the last day of this year's version of Naropa's almost forty-year-old Summer Writing Program, started by Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg in the 1970s, two visiting instructors among the summer faculty signing books and chatting with students on campus drew much bigger crowds than anyone else.

Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore -- a poetry enthusiast -- and turntablist/writer DJ Spooky, who are former collaborators, held court with students, and a few star-struck local fans like myself who knew the two were in town, for a few happy hours in the sun on Friday. Moore also sat, unbeknownst to us until it was over, outside a rehearsal my band conducted at Naropa that afternoon. What a surreal experience to have one of your all-time musical heroes listening in, without your knowledge, while you play.

Equally surreal, however, was DJ Spooky's brilliant performance late Friday night at Boulder's exceptional DIY venue Astroland, where about fifty Naropa students and a handful of locals danced to Spooky's creative mash-ups from about midnight to 3 a.m. and then hung out with the incredibly friendly Washington, D.C.-born experimental hip-hop legend afterward.

What a special event, seeing Spooky up close and personal with Naropa students and fellow Naropa alums in a setting not unlike the punk shows I held in my parents' garage in suburban Pittsburgh as a teenager. Ironically, Spooky (born Paul D. Miller) took his stage name from Nova Express, the seminal 1964 cut-up novel by William S. Burroughs, who taught at Naropa for many years.

There's a clear connection between the brash psychedelia of Burroughs' sliced-up prose and Spooky's ingenious cauldron of samples, which captivated the Astroland audience by melding everything from M.I.A. to Duke Ellington and somehow keeping it all cohesive, articulate and dance-worthy.

My musical tastes are far more rooted in punk, jazz and classic rock, so a hip-hop expert I'm not, but after just a few minutes listening to DJ Spooky, it was clear his brand of bouncy, hyper-intelligent electronic is something altogether different, and altogether original, at least in the Burroughsian sense of making something from everything.

With the help of an iPad application he created last year (which has been downloaded over one million times since), Spooky displayed not only a remarkable ability to successfully transform bits of music and speech from hundreds of records into a body-moving sound all his own, but also a firm grasp on the history of music.

Unlike, say, Girl Talk -- the thoroughly enjoyable Pittsburgh mash-up mastermind who relies mostly on putting together a handful of hits from the past thirty years for thirty seconds, repeating that formula for another thirty seconds, and so on -- Spooky truly plays musical chemist, and watching him do it live in a space as tiny as Astroland was unforgettable.


Personal Bias: I'm a graduate of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University and a veteran of the 2008 Summer Writing Program. Random Detail: Apparently DJ Spooky performed Friday's $15 show at Astroland for charity, but he was also nice enough to put several young Naropa students on the guestlist after they attended his class or struck up conversations with him on campus. By The Way: Astroland, which used to allow concertgoers to party B.Y.O.B.-style, is now outlawing alcohol after some run-ins with police. They have also been forced to keep the volume minimal at all shows, which was a substantial problem during DJ Spooky's set unless you were in the front half of the room.

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