The following is a review of an RJD2 concert I had the privilege of attending Friday night.
Arriving at Union Transfer a little later than I would have liked to, we stumbled into the beginning of Icebird’s set. Such was the slightly ad-hoc setup onstage at UT – the latest venue championed by Philadelphia promotion giants R5 Productions – that I recognized Ramble John “RJD2” Krohn over by the keyboards and so surmised that for once, the venue manager had been right and the main event was starting on time. Not only had Philly local RJD2 turned up on time but he’d brought a whole band of hip cats with him to do the honours of bolstering his already thick, magnificent sample-driven arrangements.
Nevertheless, as the crew launched into their first song and RJ seemed unusually positioned in a corner, almost falling off the small stage in order to allow for two guitarists, a vocalist and an extensive drum kit, it became obvious I’d been mistaken. This was not RJD2 playing his hits with instrumental support. Instead, we had ‘Icebird’ – a project co-steered by RJ and fellow local Aaron Livingston – launching their new album as a support band. Talk about keeping the maximum amount of punter dollars. The bustling crowd – while probably more clued in than yours truly – seemed to perpetuate a tone of befuddlement that had as much to do with RJ’s appearance as with the strange sounds coming out of Icebird. The band’s schizophrenic approach to genre – at one moment TV On The Radio indie, at the next Al Green soul – and patently unpolished performance meant that their set went down something like their titular namesake. Floundering and cold.
It was to triumphant applause then that RJ returned, suited up Daft Punk-style as ‘Mr Crotchbutton’ to fiddle with his newfangled electronic genitalia and produce the sorts of astounding beats that would come to characterize the night. Any memory of the awkward, dithering Icebird was quickly expunged as RJ laid the foundation stone for a hyperactive set with “The Horror”. Rooted in high-pitched synthesizers, the ‘Deadringer’ favourite lent itself to the sort of big beat manipulation and dexterous scratching that RJD2 looked as though he was born to do. Particularly impressive, especially in contrast to the excitable but ultimately pompous Girl Talk at last month’s Popped Festival, was RJD2’s genuine ability. Having basically pioneered a sound anchored in scratchy vinyl samples, cinematic vocal grabs and hip-hop snares and bass with his ‘Deadringer’ debut, RJD2’s dedication to reproducing and building on the luscious soundscapes he first painted back in 2002 was both charming and disarming. In an electronic live music landscape where that ‘live’ element is gradually becoming more neglected, it was heartening to see someone practicing their trade (live scratching, gasp!) with such devotion.
As much as the show became a spectacle for all the right reasons, it was also a party. While much of the intricacy of RJD2’s discography demands individual and focused headphone attention, the big hooks that made ‘1976’ and ‘Rain’ such resonant anthems transformed the tiered Union Transfer into a dance club for the night. A receptive hometown crowd, as demographically diverse as RJ’s own influences, moshed, swayed, tangoed and jived on cue, matching the ever-changing results of the disc jockey’s crate-diving. When not intensely concentrated on serving up terrific transitions and recreating classics, RJ, doing the work of videographer, comic, frontman, DJ, cataloguer and hype man, looked to be enjoying himself too. In stark contrast to Icebird’s somewhat disjointed performance, the sound coming out of RJ’s set sounded eerily more like a team effort.
Without the pomp and grandeur of Deadmau5, MSTRKRFT, Pretty Lights or Daft Punk, RJD2 brought it back to an elemental, fundamentally musical level. Calling Icebird’s drummer back onstage for an encore led out by ‘Let The Good Times Roll Pt. 2’, the shouts of ‘Yeah!’ to the sample’s questioning, ‘Are you ready? Do you wanna hear?’ were rousing and natural. Something like RJ’s performance on the whole.
RJD2 – The Horror