Review: A-Trak drops the needle at Crowbar

Atrak1

(This is the 27th entry in Soundcheck's summer concert series, The 50-50 Club. For previous entries, click here.)

Don't ask me to explain what, exactly, a DJ does live.

You could explain it to me as much as you want -- and artists like Girl Talk and Ferry Corsten have done just that -- but I'm not sure I'll ever totally understand it. I see a lot of button-pushing and knob-twirling and laptop-tickling, and I know the job is to get bodies moving and keep them that way, but I still can't give you an adequate answer as to exactly how a superstar DJ manipulates music in a live setting.

Don't get me wrong -- I have huge respect for top-notch live DJs. At a Super Bowl party this year, I was blown away by a set from, of all people, Samantha Ronson. (I'm guessing that within the DJ community, saying you like Samantha Ronson is the equivalent of saying Soulja Boy is the best hardcore rapper in the game today, but whatever. I like what I like. Good is good.)

And when DJ A-Trak took the stage at Crowbar sunday night for the first show of his "10,000 Lb. Hamburger Tour," and started showing off the turntabling skills that made him a world-champion beatmeister and producer, not to mention Kanye West's tour DJ, it was pretty clear that the man knows his way around a live stage.

For more than two hours, A-Trak (a.k.a. Alain Macklovitch) twiddled and scratched his way through beats both phat and tight, from early-'90s MTV Party to Go jams to his own funky booty-shakers. People got busy. More than one running man was achieved on the dance floor. And A-Trak worked the turntables like a jam guitarist works a fretboard.

But before the show, though, a couple of late changes had me sweating.

First, his show was originally slated to take place at Czar, which, truth be told, would have made a lot more sense. Crowbar has a great stage, and is a very cool indie rock club (with weekly hip-hop shows, too), but when the hipsters want to dance, Czar is where they go. That's where other indie DJ superstars like Girl Talk, Diplo and Switch usually come when they pass through town.

The show was moved in part so there could be a cookout on Crowbar's killer patio (there were free hot dogs, hamburgers and Boca Burgers on hand for anyone who wanted them), and you won't hear me badmouthing anyone who wants to give away free food, so let's just move on.

As soon as I got there, I was met with a bit of hugely disappointing news: Teenage Baltimore hotstepper (and M.I.A. protoge) Rye Rye had to cancel, due to what I heard was a family emergency. (Still waiting to hear back from Rye Rye's people on that.) Can't tell you how bummed I was about that. Couldn't A-Trak have called Kid Sister, or his brother Dave-1 from Chromeo to be a last-minute fill-in or something?

I don't know. Maybe I was just cranky. Truth be told, I was a little tired from a long weekend of July Fourthing. I got there at 6 p.m., and considering A-Trak didn't go on until 11 p.m., that might have been a little more electro than I needed. At one point, I had to run down to King Corona Cigars for a pick-me-up Cafe Corona. Consider that my first lesson learned on the night: If you're going to an all-day DJ show, unless you really feel like dancing for 5 or 6 hours, you can probably show up late, and still have a good time.

There were some good acts early on, though. I saw most of a set by Orlando's DJ Ynot, who played a terrific mix of deeply funky soul and old-school jams, and the end result DJ Jazzy Jeff and Bill Withers fronting a Gap Band cover group. Pauly Crush, the ebullient mastermind of the weekly Pulp the Party at Czar, played to the crowd with a more modern set of danceable funk, even throwing in a little Rye Rye and Khia (!) for good measure.

Personally, I didn't get on my feet until Treasure Fingers (laconic Atlanta DJ Ashley Jones) took the decks. His was a shimmering set of synth-driven indie-electro-disco (i.e., Empire of the Sun) that felt like the soundtrack to a 1979 coke party.

And then came A-Trak. Over the course of two hours and 15 minutes, he mixed his own beats in with jams guaranteed to get the crowd moving. When he played the opening squiggles of De La Soul's Me Myself & I, then grooved over to DJ EZ Rock and Rob Base's It Takes Two, then threw in some LL Cool J and A Tribe Called Quest and Black Sheep. To please the (many) hipsters in the crowd, he even threw in a snippet of Phoenix's Lisztomania.

But A-Trak made his bones as a turntablist, and he didn't disappoint, whipping his fingers from deck to deck, knob to knob, scritching and scratching and making his records squeal like stuck pigs. This is where DJing becomes a truly live music experience, improvisational and experimental and just plain eff-it fun. It was like A-Trak wasn't happy unless he was somehow manipulating the music. Like I said, he played the decks like a guitarist plays a guitar*.

Atrak3

He went on well past his scheduled end time, just twiddling and messing around with the music. Maybe that was because this was the first show of his tour, and he was just settling into a rhythm.

Truth be told, the performance might have gone on a little long; after a while, people started leaving the dance floor and heading back out to the patio. And toward the very end of the set, three things happened right in front of the stage:

1. A couple started making out.

2. A dude started doing karate.

3. I got my dance on.

When those three things happen, it's probably time to call it a set. So at around 1:15 a.m., A-Trak packed up his gear. Most excellent St. Pete DJ duo Stavros came on next, and although I really wanted to check 'em out**, I had other business to attend to down the street at Temple Lounge.

That's right: I had a date with Rick Ross. My night was just getting started.

TO BE CONTINUED ...

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

* You want to take the guitar parallels even further? A-Trak even air-scratched to the Beastie Boys' Get It Together.

** When Soundcheck named Stavros Artist of the Day on June 17, a commenter wrote: "Every party those guys throw reminds me of why I dropped out of high school to begin with." Now THAT is a compliment. I think.

[Last modified: Monday, July 6, 2009 1:46pm]

    

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