Giant Karl Hyde shadow.
Back in my mid-20s, my hands-down number one musical goal was to see Underworld live. I'd seen video of their concerts, and the idea of a non-stop dance party to all of my favorite electronic songs was enormously appealing. I'll admit, I even thought about going to see them in Europe if they never made it back to the U.S. on tour, because there for awhile, they were pretty quiet on album output, and played only a few select European dates.
Then they released "Oblivion With Bells," and played a few dates in the United States, including one in New York at Central Park. Underworld a mere train ride away? My friend Melvin and I jumped at the chance to see them, and it was an amazing concert — one of the most memorable nights of my life. And then surprisingly, they came around again the year after, to play Virgin Fest in Baltimore. So Melvin and I went again, to watch them play an incredible set in a terrible venue (Virgin Fest called it the "Dance Tent", but it should have been the "Dust Tent").
I went a year with no Underworld concerts, but then this year, wonder of wonders, they played at the 9:30 Club here in D.C. Well, after all that trekking to see them, there's no way I was going to pass on it when they were a Metro ride away. So, you guessed it, Melvin and I (and let me just note, I am exceedingly lucky to have a friend who loves Underworld concerts as much as me) went to see them again last night. Now a full four years after our first Underworld concert, we were remarking on passing 30 and getting old before the concert. In my case, I've been battling a problem with my foot since February, and, well, let's just say there aren't a lot of bands that could get me out to a concert on a Monday night these days. In fact, there might only be one.
But hey, we did come out on a Monday night, and so our mantra became "we're old, but we're here." We were out with the rest of the trending-older crowd — the median age was looking pretty thirty-something — to dance nonstop for a couple of hours to the group that literally redefined electronic music in the 1990s. And yes, foot or not, I danced (although I will admit to wearing my New Balances); the latest theory on my foot is that there's nothing structurally wrong with it, so I decided to put that theory to the test.
This was the sort of crowd that pulled their glow sticks out of retirement.
But enough about me. What about Underworld? Well, going back to the whole age thing, these guys — who are at least 20 years older than me — put out two almost entirely nonstop hours of high-energy music. It may actually have been the most intense Underworld concert I've been to, and that's saying a lot.
They started things out with Downpipe, then into Always Loved a Film, one of the better songs off of their new album, "Barking." I'll admit that I'm not loving "Barking" as much as their previous albums; it's pretty poppy and accessible, almost too much so. I think now that I've heard some of the songs, though, I might come back to it and give it another try. It's never going to be a "Second Toughest in the Infants" (the greatest electronic album, ever), but then, maybe I shouldn't expect a group to be able to replicate that level of genius again. The video screen — an Underworld requisite — came up during Film and was used periodically throughout the night, showing videos that were arty, occasionally strange, and, as always, key to the experience. The lighted tubes from the last two shows were gone, however (or they just didn't fit on the 9:30 Club stage).
Then they were on to more familiar territory with the lovely one-two punch of Dark Train, complete with the requisite flashing lights accompanying the synth chords at the song's climax, and then Two Months Off. Two Months Off is the song that gives me hope for the new Underworld album, because I didn't really get it when it was on the album. It was okay, sure, but it always felt kind of odd and stilted. Live, though, it loses all those harsh edges and comes out huge, hopeful, and immensely dance-able. I have a feeling that somewhere on "Barking" there's another song like it, one that will continue to morph live until they've turned it into one of the big Underworld dance anthems everyone's always waiting for at their concerts.
However, I don't think You Do Scribble, the next song, is going to be that song. It's one that's already been developing over the years (they actually played it in Baltimore and I think I liked it better then) and somehow turned into a poppy breakbeat thing that just doesn't entirely do it for me. That's the weird thing about Underworld. They've got these songs that, live, just hit you in the gut and compel you to dance. There's nothing identifiably wrong with Scribble, but it just doesn't have that gut punch. Bird 1 was next, one of the slower songs they did, and probably the one I could have most swapped out for something else (Rowla, you were missed).
Then again, it was a handy breather for my old self, and I needed that breather when it was time for Rez/Cowgirl. There weren't any slippery-awesome transitions to it this time, just standard Rez/Cowgirl, which is still always, always, always outstanding — that moment when the bleeps and blips really kick in and the crowd just goes nuts is always one of my favorites.
Rick Smith does (heavily processed, but still!) backing vocals!
They went back to new material in their next two songs, but it was stronger stuff (two candidates, perhaps, for the new Two Months Off). Between Stars was nice and crisp, and Diamond Jigsaw was a real surprise, with Karl Hyde strapping on a guitar that was core to the song, instead of a little extra texture. And indeed, it does have that same sort of big, happy feeling that Two Months Off does.
At about this point, I was feeling like Underworld might have played a few too many new songs, and that was going to cheat me out of some of the big, barnstorming electronica anthems they're known for. Um, no. Instead, they just played a longer set. And that is why I love them.
King of Snake kind of snuck in, without any of Shudder, so it was a slowly dawning realization that they were going to do it, and it was an excellent one. I was kind of disappointed in the transitions this time around — there weren't as many of those brilliant little moments as they slid from one song into another. But it seemed like they were working on something else this time, equally brilliant and interesting, and that was reinventing songs like King of Snake. Yes, the gigantic I Feel Love, four-on-the-floor beat was still holding up the bottom, but the piano was gone, replaced with new bleeps and blips, and it made the song every bit as dance-able as it's always been, but newly intruiging.
Karl Hyde has impossible amounts of energy.
And then, of course, Underworld might try a set in Europe without Born Slippy .NUXX, but there's to be none of that in the U.S. People might tend toward mutiny if they never got to shout "Lager! Lager! Lager!." So it was next, without the sneaky little bit of the original Born Slippy kicking it off this time, just a booming beat and some dissonant wailing synth that built and built and built until it was identifiable, and increasing amounts of the crowd lost it. What do you say about Born Slippy? It's the ultimate gut-punch song, something you can play and never fail to get a crowd going, and saving it for the end left us all primed and ready for it.
They closed with Born Slippy, and left the stage for two or three minutes, max, (granted, the crowd was screaming and clapping for the entirety of that time) before coming back out for an encore. I was primed for disappointment at this point, because the last two times I've seen them live, they closed with Jumbo, which is one of my least favorite Underworld songs. Oh, but this time, they came in with that distinctive opening to Dirty Epic and I screamed at the top of my lungs. Truly. Something snapped loose in my throat when I did it, and today I sound like I gargled with razor blades.
Dirty Epic is one of my all-time favorite Underworld songs; not a dance song, but one that shows their range, their ability to create these amazing, atmospheric electronic songs. Every time I listen to it, my brain creates its own little Underworld video screen, filled with dark rain-soaked brick alleys and old houses with faded wallpaper and London Tube platforms late at night. It's beautifully evocative. And maybe it doesn't translate all of that live, sped up smidge so that some of the crowd was swaying, and some people were out and out trying to dance. But so nice to stand there and close my eyes and sway and sing those strange and brilliant lyrics.
Moaner: Crazy intense.
Both of the previous times I'd seen them, Underworld did a one-song encore. But this time they weren't done, and they pulled out a wicked transition to redeem themselves in the transition department and close out the night — hinting, hinting, hinting, and then, finally, Moaner. Rez/Cowgirl might be a thing of beauty, and Born Slippy might be the electronica anthem of all time, but NOTHING is more intense live than Moaner. They come in with that big booming undertone and the high, frantic synth, and then top that all off with the increasingly desperate vocals, plenty of smoke and impossibly fast strobe lights, and everybody can't help but leave it all on the floor.
And we did, capping off a two-hour set, watching our hands stutter above our heads in the lights. Dancing because this was it and it was crazy and our guts compelled us to, no matter how old we were.