Chemistry set

Singing along to electronica with the Chemical Brothers and Paul Oakenfold live in New York.

Published September 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

You know a cultural movement is moving along at a steady clip when the hot dog vendors catch on. And there they were, camped outside New York's Hammerstein Ballroom hawking franks and pretzels and bottled water to folks anxious to see the Chemical Brothers take Manhattan. Along with the vendors came the scalpers, the same scalpers who dole out tickets to Knicks games at the Garden, just a one-block jump shot down the street. And then the promoters, shilling flyers. And the fashion plates, like the guy defiantly wearing a seersucker suit past Labor Day, Gheri-curls spilling out from underneath his fedora.

The circus happening just outside the circus gearing up inside made one thing perfectly clear: For all its progress in methodically creating a new cultural language, electronica still knows how to stage a good old-fashioned spectacle. This was reassuring throughout the course of the night, because while the music's language can be fascinating to hear, it resonates with little more than a markedly unsubtle command to "Dance! Dance! Dance!" when spread out over more than four hours of opening and headlining acts. Selectively whittled down to snippets, though, it made for some interesting conversation. Like that carried on by two young teenagers bounding into the theater during DJ Paul Oakenfold's opening set. The boy, his head all but completely swallowed up by his oversized hood, heard a sound drifting through the doorway and turned toward his girlfriend. "No shit!" he said, before curling his mouth. "Diiiiuurrrrrr, niiuuuurrr, ruuuiir," he muttered, presumably "singing" along with what seemed to be his favorite song. Maybe even "their" song. He put his arm around her shoulders. Her eyes lit up. She smiled. They'd just had one of those moments.

The crowd had been sufficiently greased by the time the Chemical Brothers took the stage. Giddy dancers twirled glow-sticks like little kids waving sparklers on the Fourth of July. House music (both in style and in origin) had extended Oakenfold's relatively starched and unadventurous beats through the break between acts. When the Chemical Brothers came out to man their machines, the gears were already churning.

Moving swiftly from the single "Hey Boy Hey Girl" to the ironically (or embarrassingly) self-evident sample snap that pleads for "music that triggers some kind of response" on their latest album, "Surrender," the Chemicals made their intentions clear from the git-go. As long as that response wasn't asked to transcend the merely physical it was in good hands. There's no way not to react in some way to the Chemical Brothers' live act because, unlike on their recordings, the duo benefit from the mechanics of sheer volume. Enabled by a keen sense of dynamics, their music offers not so much an invitation to respond, but an insurmountable challenge not to. Their bass tones rattled chest cavities more than ears. And their electronic drones and chirps cut vectors through the spacious ballroom, transforming its Art Deco-tinged self into something more like a NASA hangar.

The Brothers themselves were a joy to watch, lovably geeky when their arms raised up in exaltation and analytically cool when their eyes gazed at nothing but the black boxes before them. Bouncing up and down as they punched buttons and fiddled with knobs, they looked charmingly like spirited data-entry specialists. Behind them rose a series of projection screens covered by images ranging from primitive black-and-white animation to architectural models to Day-Glo-rendered stained-glass deities to an army of ominously marching tin-toy robots. "Hyperkinetic" seemed to be the word of the evening.

The scattered start, however, began to wear thin before long. On "Surrender," the Chemicals steered relatively clear of their Big Beat beginnings in an attempt to accentuate the spaces in between their euphoric breaks. It's a respectable move, since their formula of old has been co-opted and mercilessly pummeled into the ground. The problem, both on the record and at the show, is that the spaces in between those breaks still sound like in-between spaces. There's little to latch onto after the Chemicals' trick-bag is empty. Which wouldn't have been a problem at the Hammerstein if they were more capable with the tools of trance, but subtlety and nuance have never been associated with the Chemical Brothers. Hearing their bumbled attempts at finding finesse was a bit like reading a novel written without punctuation: In the right hands in can be hypnotic, in the wrong ones it stumbles clumsily.

And stumble clumsily the show did, not unlike a boy inspecting a cut over his eye in a Hammerstein bathroom mirror. "Damn!" he said, speaking to no one but his bloodied image. "All I did was try to jump over a few chairs, and now I have to go to the hospital." It was a reflective moment.

By Andy Battaglia

Andy Battaglia is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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