"If you're not open-minded, if you're uptight, then you're gonna struggle," said DJ Shadow before his prophetically titled "All Basses Covered" DJ set at the Majestic Theatre last night. I appreciate his honesty, but I doubt that my complaints about the show spring from closed-mindedness. Mostly, they have to do with my struggle to hear what he was doing.
Shadow is known for his acclaimed 2002 album The Private Press, but most of his fame comes from the 1996 classic Endtroducing..., which is the first record entirely constructed from samples. He displayed really impressive technique last night. His seamless melding of samples was quite extraordinary to witness, and his virtuosity as a DJ was unquestionable. He triggered samples with MIDI pads, never used a laptop to remix anything, and fed different records into the mix by hand. At one point, he even beat on the vinyl with a drumstick, adding extra rhythms to his creations. Snippets of old songs were audible at times, and quickly remixed, but the show really emphasized how well Shadow mixes live. The man was at one with his machines.
Despite Shadow's technical and technological prowess, it was difficult to appreciate what he was doing due to the chest-pummeling bass. The sonic detail of his on-the-fly remixing was rendered almost completely inaudible. I realize that complaining about bass levels at a live DJ set seems antiquated at best. But overly heavy bass defeats the purpose of live mixing. Some great songs were mixed and sampled throughout, but for the most part, the maxed-out bass levels muddied what Shadow was doing. This is a shame, especially considering the obvious amount of thought and planning that went into the set. As the set went on, the cheering in between songs began to seem like a respite from the bass levels.
Opener Man Mantis presented a competent opening set, consisting mostly of synthy, ethereal beats and occasional voice samples. His visuals, an artful blend of many different clips from film and TV, melded well with his beats, but he didn't generate much excitement. The most notable part of his set was an imaginative mix that used a John Lennon sample to interesting effect.
Fan response to Shadow's set varied. One fan said, "It's a blend of hip-hop and, I don't know, really good shit." Another called it "all new dubstep shit," which didn't really seem too accurate, considering that dubstep is now often used as an adjective to describe anything remotely electronic. But who could tell? One fan mused at length, "It sounds like none of the shit I used to sing along to... I mean, what can you do? This shit is mainstream." Another fan summed it up best: "It's kind of all over the place, but overall, I enjoyed it. It's kind of hard to hear over the bass, though."