Tuesday
Nov182014

Above & Beyond in the Words of Someone Unfamiliar With Trance

Article by Michelle Galvin | Photos by Kerry Israel | Edited by Nick Minieri

Above & Beyond have been widely known, loved, and respected throughout the dance scene since 2000. When they first began production, it seemed as if they were simply doing just as their title implies: continuously going beyond what other producers and DJ’s were doing both sonically and artistically. Even by listening to just a few songs, it’s obvious they’re the real deal; they’re not going anywhere any time soon.
 
I had the incredible opportunity to witness A&B perform live a few weeks ago at the Tsongas Arena in Lowell on the night before Halloween. While my taste in “genres” of dance and EDM have fluctuated, I’ve generally considered myself one of these crazy “Bassheads” as well as a diehard Trap Queen. A big difference from the synth-heavy trance A&B are known for crafting.
 

So when I thought about writing a review on a show of a group whose music I’d never really listened to, I instantly thought of an Amish person striving to write a How-To Guide on using a microwave. I pretty much had no effing clue. If anything however, there’s no question I was very keen on A&B’s strong fan base and always read glowing reviews about their live shows online.
 
Halloween season is always fun because you can dress even crazier than you already do, thus amplifying the excitement. It was my first time at Tsongas; impression-wise I could immediately tell it was a perfect venue. It’s HUGE, and because you aren’t forced to sit in a seat, you can mingle and dance as you please. If you want to take a break you could chill in the stands, and if you want to get down you can do it on the dance floor. Lately I’d been to too many shows where people are forced to dance with a chair behind their legs, and personally I’m all set with that. Unfortunately Tsongas didn’t have a bar, which was kind of a bummer. My friend and I also paid six dollars for a water and only after making such a luxurious purchase did we turn to see people extracting free water from a large jug merely three feet away. I suppose that was our bad.
 

Moving on to the people, everyone was dressed to the nines, paying their full-fledged tributes to the Day of the Dead. But friendly and in high spirits mind you. Some of them asked if I had ever been to an Above and Beyond show, which following an initial wide-eyed response would always follow with a response along the lines of “You’re in for a treat” in combination with a grin of sorts.
 
Promises aside, I was initially still skeptical. “This is not my scene. I prefer bass music,” I kept telling myself. As Benny Benassi was finishing up his hard-hitting electro-house set as A&B’s opener, I tried to quell any preconceived notions. Being surrounded by ecstatic people made me question if this is how I normally feel in the environment I’m most comfortable with at a show featuring RL Grime, Baauer, Datsik, et al. 
 
When A&B made their way onto the stage, insane beams of light immediately overpowered the entire ceiling, reaching its highest peaks. They were bright enough to hit the farthest wall across the massive room. The tracks they played early on were upbeat and super catchy, surely designed to engage listeners with the most basic of tastes. There were plenty of vocals in these early songs which prompted many in the crowd to immediately sing along to. While I recognized only one track early on (“Sticky Fingers”), the ease and accessibility of these tracks had me falsely believing even I knew all the words right off the bat. 
 

But then something happened. They stopped playing their more popular songs and reigned in a darker and more fluid mixing. Wait, what were these sounds I was hearing? They were insanely melodic and expressive and beautiful. And the build ups were not meant to end with some crazy loud bass drop, but were actually building up something continuous inside of me. You could not only hear happiness in the music, but pain as well. I stopped dancing so I could let it in more, and it looked, felt, tasted, and sounded remarkable; every inch of my skin was vibrating. It’s unexplainable honestly. I closed my eyes for awhile, which I never do. For a few moments I was completely lost. My feet were not even touching the floor. When I opened my eyes, they connected with the same girl who told me earlier I was in for a treat. She was smirking at me with the look of “I told you so.” I smiled back to thank her.

My feet didn’t land back on solid ground until A&B closed out their set with one final song. Many friends in the crowd hugged each other in tight circles, families holding onto the people they cared about most, and many of them were crying tears of absolute joy. The set ended with A&B typing to the crowd on the big screen “We love you. Good luck with finals. See you in 2015.” My mind was fully unhinged, and I think I began to understand.  
 

Above & Beyond are coming back to Boston early next year (2/19) at the House of Blues to promote the release of their new album “We Are All We Need”. Definitely looking forward to both now. Without a doubt this duo goes above and beyond for their adoring fans, who connect so strongly under their lights. This group has nothing but love for their audience, and was more than happy to be a part of it. There is literally no better atmosphere to be in.

If you find yourself thinking a certain way about trance, or any genre you are not prone to listen to overall, remind yourself that you can’t judge something until you’ve experienced it firsthand. Even if it isn’t for you, you can at least say you tried. But more often than not, if you put your first foot out there, it might start dancing. And if you decide to give Above and Beyond a go, they both might not even touch the floor.

 

Friday
Aug222014

Mike Hawkins at NAGA: Big Room Optional For Small Room Venue

Article & Photos by Bobby DeMarco | Edited by Nick Minieri

When I first signed up to cover Mike Hawkins on for the gig he played last month in Boston, the devil’s advocate part of my personality took over, causing me to ask myself three dreaded questions:

1. “Is he going to only play big room music?”
2. “How many times will he play his “Tsunami” track?”
3. “How many messed up kids will be there?

With the rise in popularity of dance music, it’s naturally become popular for those in the underground to accuse today’s hit-makers of watering down the genre both behind decks and in the studio. So I wanted to see if I could smash through these preconceived notions and disprove he was “just another big room DJ”. And luckily by the end of the night, I wasn’t disappointed.

With a clear head and open mind I walked into Naga, the place Hawkins played, on a humble Wednesday evening. Interestingly enough I chat with some patrons in a narrow, dark and mostly empty sushi bar (Moksa Restaurant), which you must walk through before entering Naga. None of them knew who Hawkins was, there merely seemed to just be some sort of consensus the venue was simply a place where you could dance. I guess similar to me, they weren’t walking in with any preconceived notions either.

As I navigated through the bar and gravitated towards the faint rumble of Naga’s subwoofers on the other side of a doorway, I knew right away the vibe of that room would differ a little from Moksa. I walk in and am immediately taken back with the impact of DJ Exodus, who was tearing through some heaters as the opener for Hawkins.

Sipping on my expensive but unregrettably strong whiskey ginger, I laid low for a little while, just taking in the atmosphere of the room. The crowd appeared to be mostly of the 20-and-under flavor, with a pleasantly surprising variety of ethnic groups, each of which brought their own dance moves to the floor. The floor seemed a bit disconnected and thin at first, but just the fact everyone was dancing showed there was plenty of common ground to build from.

Mike Hawkins took the steering wheel around 11:45, looking genuinely happy to be there. It wasn’t a full room by any means, but he seemed unphased. He worked with 3 Pioneer CDJ’s throughout; his opening built slowly by adding each instrument (drums, bass, lead synths, pads, etc) one at a time. Epic intros are not always my thing, but this one was executed much more tastefully than just banging on some airhorns and getting on the mic to announce who he was (as if Naga was some giant rage-fest). Following the intro, Hawkins quickly found his groove, as did the dancefloor.

The problem with Boston on a weeknight is it’s not uncommon for attendance at an event to peak around midnight, with the crowd dwindling in numbers as people head home to rest up for the following day’s work. This usually happens independently of the person playing, the type of music, even the quality of the set. So I had to keep this in mind during the final hour of Hawkins’ session as people inevitably started to veer towards the exit sign.

There were certainly a couple of tracks that leaned heavily towards the commercial side of the spectrum as anticipated, such as Carnage’s remix of Hardwell’s “Spaceman”, A-Trak’s “Heads Will Roll” and Skrillex’s “Ruffneck Bass”. Oh yeah, “Tsunami” too. But he also ventured well outside the box, playing plenty of what seemed like his own exclusives as well as a number of re-edits. It wasn’t “banger” after “banger” or a typical prescribed headliner set either; Hawkins tried his best to layer in some melodic terrain to suit the size of the smaller room.

The crowd who stayed until the end was evidently non-discerning; they simply danced from start to end…instead of bothering Hawkins with requests or incessantly Tweeting and Instagramming.

Hawkins closed the night with his heavily-hyped single “Revolt”, wrapping things up just beyond his allotted time. He then made the effort to come from behind the booth and engage with the troopers who stayed until the end. Hawkins seemed empathetic towards these night owls, knowing Boston isn’t exactly known as an EDM mecca and a city he could’ve skipped in favor of just playing a second show in NYC (where the next stop of his tour was heading) instead. It’s tough to not give the guy credit for hitting a city most in his league would’ve gladly skipped over.

What witnessing Hawkins taught me is that a big room DJ can still shine in the constraints of a small room. With Naga radiating an entirely different type of energy than, say, a big club or multi-million dollar festival, it’s important for a headliner to understand these differences and scale accordingly. Hawkins managed to succeed in a capacity where many others would’ve failed.

Follow Mike Hawkins Soundcloud page here and check a few of his recent mixes below.


Monday
Jul142014

No Life Vest Required: Destructo Delivers Stellar Set at Prime, Without The Ship


Article & Photos by Bobby DeMarco | Edited by Nick Minieri

Destructo is a wearer of many hats in the American dance scene: throwing events, partying on boats, DJ’ing, producing, touring, sleeping at airports, you name it. When interviewing him before touching down in Boston on his summer tour, he made it all sound so easy: “(Each task) goes hand in hand…it’s what I do, each job helps each other out, everything just works out,” he told me in calm and collected form. That instilled my confidence in his ability to deliver a killer set right off the bat, which I got the chance to witness at Prime on Friday June 27th.

I walked into the club an hour-and-a-half before Destructo hit the decks, feeling excited and almost anxious. In anticipation for his throwdown I briefly reflected on my favorite show at the now-defunct Ocean Club in Quincy, when Destructo opened for Claude Von Stroke last summer. That was my first chance to witness the energy he brought to the table in a live setting. With an upgrade to headliner status this time around, the ante and adrenaline were both heightened for me.

Opening DJ Jaminic warmed up the crowd up nicely, playing his tech house cards in a funky sort of fashion. People were grooving nicely and the energy in the room was palpable even before midnight. The DJ booth included 3 CDJ’s, which I figured Destructo would roll with after Jaminic finished.


As far as Prime is concerned, sound system is bumping; it has both the acoustics and the low-frequency thump that DJ’s such as myself can appreciate. They also installed a new LCD screen which enhances the eye candy. On the other hand I suppose we can all agree Prime tends to get crowded very quickly due to its smaller size. For any A-list DJ, expect limited space and a long line at the bar. For Destructo there was a good amount of breathing room however. I suppose the college crowd being out of the city for the summer was a factor here; either way it resulted in me wearing a bit less whiskey and beer than usual. And the people who were there were serious music heads from the scene…and not there just to “be seen”.

Destructo seamlessly took over the CDJ’s right on schedule at 12:30. Seamlessly is the key word here. No dramatic introduction or any ridiculous antics that could’ve potentially damaged the flow. Similar to the crowd who were there not to “be seen”, Destructo’s goal wasn’t that either. His only mission was to invite serious listeners along for a journey of full-fledged party grooves. And the crowd didn’t seem to be complaining.

If I were to describe how Destructo’s set stood apart from the many others I’ve heard over the years, I’d have to say he didn’t play many songs I knew (which as a DJ I always appreciate). “I just go by my instincts on what I like and never follow the pack,” Destructo said in our brief interview beforehand. A bold statement, but one clear as day after witnessing him for the second time that night.

With dance circles and smiles galore at the end of the night, Destructo ended his set with his track “Higher”, fueled entirely by the energy of the room. As he walked off, the crowd chanted “Ship Fam, Ship Fam” paying homage to his baby: the annual Holy Ship party cruise, which has helped massively expand his fanbase in recent years. Hell he even made time to join the chant. It was one of those moments where you wished Boston was open until 4am.

It isn’t often I get to witness an A-list artist connect with his fans like Destructo did at Prime. There are many times these DJ’s are just there to collect a paycheck and get out of Boston as fast as possible. But it was clear Destructo wanted to stay, find an afterparty somewhere to jam out at, and talk shop about plug-ins and software with kids from the scene he’s never even met before, while sharing music with anyone willing to listen.

We need more DJs like Destructo around these parts; this is a dude I’ll gladly re-arrange my schedule to witness again in this city.

Destructo’s Soundcloud
Destructo’s Facebook Page
HardFest Homepage

Thursday
Jul032014

New England Veteran TJR Makes Proper Homecoming at The Estate

When people discuss the most successful artists in dance who started out in New England, it’s often the same names that get brought up: Armand Van Helden, Soul Clap, Terravita. While these guys are obviously great, there’s other headline-class producers and DJ’s from our backyard who have slipped through the cracks. The most notable example has to be TJR.

Cutting his teeth in Connecticut, TJR (who’s original name is TJ Rozdilsky) is no overnight sensation. With at least 20 years under his belt, TJR got his start by circumnavigating the local rave scene in the mid-to-late 90s playing techno and acid house. He was particularly well respected at the time for his DJ skills, which incorporated turntablism and other trickery. In the mid 2000s his chops in the studio were finally good enough to get pressed to vinyl, thanks to a big break provided by techno legends Terry Mullan and Dietrich Schoenemann.

A cross-country move to Los Angeles happened in 2010. It’s often said that in order to “blow up” in the American music industry, one must move to L.A. or New York. TJR did just that, and three years later pulled a one-two punch with “Funky Vodka” and “Ode to Oi” in early 2013. Both these tracks not only dominated the Beatport charts for months (a rarity in this day and age), but even the Billboard charts to boot. Pitbull immediately recruited TJR to collaborate with him in the studio, and the rest is history.

 
 

Now I’m not going to act as if the big room sounds of chart-topping EDM plastered all over Beatport’s homepage is my cup of tea, or something I am extensively knowledgeable on. But I can assure you one thing: I know a manufactured superstar when I see one, and TJR is the furthest thing from it. This guy is pretty talented, and there’s no question he’s put the work in to ascend to where he is now.

Knowing his history and local upbringing are reasons why I jumped at the chance to check him out when he played The Estate in Boston this past Friday (6.27.14). This isn’t something I always do when given the opportunity to see and blog about someone at his level. While this isn’t his first visit to Boston since his L.A. reinvention, it was certainly the biggest in terms of attendance.

I arrived at The Estate promptly at 11 to secure a good spot on the upper balcony so I could grab some shots with the trusty Canon SLR. Surprisingly my first trip to The Estate in a number of years, the first thing that hit me was the staff: they were all quite friendly, even energetic. The neon-colored dinosaur mascots and endless stream of glowsticks made it clear they were tailoring extensively to a younger crowd, but also while ensuring a playful vibe that’s hard to hate on. The LED displays and monitors, which have been significantly revamped since my last visit, still don’t overpower or compete against the performers, and to me that’s a good thing for a medium-sized club like The Estate.

Local DJ’s Jesse Jess and Costa warmed things up with grooving house and electro sets that hinged quite heavily on vaguely familiar vocal tracks and mash-ups. Straying from obvious anthems, these guys managed to get the crowd moving early on. Not the easiest thing to do nowadays when younger partiers often attend shows only to see the headliner and get their pictures taken with them at the end of the night for Instagram. When TJR first emerged from the back of the booth near the end of Costa’s set, he made his presence clear with a smile and an iconic Dirtybird shirt.

When TJR popped in his flash drive, the party immediately upshifted to 5th gear. The smile he had when he first stepped in the booth refused to fade through his entire hour-and-a-half set. It was practically infectious. He obviously has a lot to be happy about. It’s also amazing what a difference it makes when an artist reveals the good side of their personality during a set; it adds a warm, distinct presence to the room.

Kicking things off with a remix of NERO’s “Me & You” I’ve never heard before, he immediately got to work with the 3 CDJ’s in the booth. Much of what he was playing focused on what many currently call “big room”: tracks like “Lunatic” by Mercer & DJ Snake, “Yee” by Deorro, “Rocket” by W&W and Blasterjaxx, and “Spaceman” by Hardwell. Keeping things somewhat humorous, there were also plenty of meme-centric tracks almost everyone in the room recognized, like “When Will The Bass Drop” and “Monsters Never Wear Ray-Ban”. Hell I thought I even heard some remix of “Animals” at one point. Are these tracks my favorites? As mentioned earlier, no…and in fact, Shazam came to the rescue a number of times for me that night. But did TJR know and understand the crowd he was playing for, many of whom were probably 15 years younger than both of us? Absolutely.

A lot of the new breed of artists lucky enough to be headlining shows get flack on social media for “faking” their DJ sets. They get accosted for using prescribed playlists, playing pre-mixed CD’s, and the tired old debate of using the sync button. But coming from a traditional DJ background, TJR’s set was the farthest thing from fake. Observing him from a balcony directly overhead revealed he leaves no knob on the mixer unturned.

TJR used plenty of effects without going overboard, employed no-nonsense mixing techniques to quickly transition between cuts, and worked all three CDJ’s to deliver a set that moved quickly, yet didn’t progress in too jittery or unpredictable a fashion. The vast majority of the set was steeped in synths and saw waves, but occasional breaks in the action thanks to a couple stripped-down trap pieces gave the set (as well as the dancers) some breathing room.  

And then in typical Boston form, the music came to an immediate halt at 2am. As the lights came on, TJR reminded partygoers to “use protection” before exiting the booth to take the time to meet-and-greet with fans.

This gig is an early chapter in what will surely be a wild, festival-filled summer where he’ll play on many a main stage. Even though Boston won’t be the most glamorous or memorable of these gigs, TJR certainly didn’t seem to have that bad a time in that booth. And even though you may not have heard any of the 303’s, booming kicks, and scratching he was known for in his formative years, the humility he’s had from the get go remains. Even as one of the most successful artists in EDM at the moment. TJR hasn’t forgotten his roots; in fact he’s probably still happy just to be on the lineup.

 

Wednesday
Feb192014

Boston Marathon at Night: Max Graham Wows Crowd With Extended Set at Rise

Article by Jon Santarelli | Edited by Nick Minieri

One of Boston’s ongoing struggles is its lack of proper after-hours venues—places for partygoers and dance music fans alike to continue getting their groove on if the city’s stringent 2am curfew isn’t cutting the mustard for them. The most obvious exception, of course, is Rise. At its humble Stuart Street base, Rise has served as a home turf for music fans and world-renowned DJ’s/producers in the wee hours of twilight for over fifteen years. 

This past Friday (February 7th, 2014), Max Graham paid Rise a visit to grace the club’s upper floor decks while in the midst of his 3-month Cycles 5 tour. Graham is a well-traveled artist and no stranger at all to late-night affairs. What sets this current tour apart from the dozens of others Graham has embarked on is his focus on longer, marathon-style sets and partaking in different styles of music this time around. His solid track record of original productions, remixes, and flawless DJ sets has granted Graham more leveraging power when it comes to being able to play longer sets. This is an honorable and privileged position very few DJ’s ever have the chance to do!

Starting off the night at Rise in the downstairs lounge I head up to the main floor around 2:30am. Local DJ/Producer Anski is opening up the room with some funky tech house jams and getting the crowd properly warmed up. He is an energetic artist engaging with the crowd, jumping, yelling and having a great time. At the tail end of his set Max Graham discretely enters the both and gets settled in. Keeping a close eye on the big picture of the party and Graham’s DJ style, Anski slowly brings the musical mood down to ease things up for Graham and not overdrive the audience. In a heartbeat the artists change headphones and the switch is made. 

Max continues to move and groove in the same direction Anski wrapped things up. Seamless transitions between openers and headliners (or any DJ’s for that matter) is something that I believe lacks in many acts today; an ability to move the night forward without making a large presentation of who is getting off and who is going on. With Rise being a small venue with a MASSIVE sound system, even the most trivial of transitions are noticeable.

If one was expecting Graham to play five hours of nonstop tech house, they were going to be very disappointed. His diverse song selection and roller coaster ride of techno, trance, house, minimal, and other styles paid dividends to those who dressed comfortably. As the night waned on, Graham kept the pace well-aligned to that of the crowd in front of him. The mixing, energy, and aggression a bit more hectic in the early hours when the room was more packed, and more relaxed as the floor filtered all but the diehards at 5am. A well-paced set overall; to me it seemed to marquee a steady career spanning more than a decade.

At 5:30am I was having trouble keeping up. My energy levels depleting fast I ventured out to the Saturday morning streets of Boston to head home. The final pieces of Max Graham’s set were still ringing in my ear. The twilight trance melodies provided the remaining crowd the right send-off, easing them gently back into the real world. If you are experienced on the dance floor, you know it’s easy to fall in but even harder to climb out. Graham made this transition even more seamless than his mixing.

Not all electronic artists and DJ’s from the late 90s have found a way to stay relevant within the current, ever-changing climate. Those who do are always in an ongoing battle to fight the creative compromises they need to make to appeal to younger and less-seasoned listeners. Graham has faced little difficulty keeping up with the Joneses, to the point where he’s able to grasp more creative control and play longer sets such as what I heard tonight. It’s testament to his success as an artist.