On Wednesday, I was excited to begin my fifth time attending Decibel Festival with the Abstract Earth Project showcase at the Showbox at the Market. This showcase featured Wax Tailor, an artist whose work I’d never yet picked up, but hearing some of it recently on KEXP had me saying “oh yeah, this is great, why don’t I have this?” Now I would finally have the opportunity to experience it live. Also on the showcase were Rena Jones, Little People, and Blockhead, none of whom were familiar to me.
I arrived a bit late to find Rena Jones‘ set already in progress. I thought this was an excellent choice for opening one of the first shows of Decibel Festival for this important reason: “electronic music” doesn’t mean “laptop”, or even “synthesizer”, it means whatever electronic gear is used to aid in creating music. Here, acoustic cello, drums, marimba, accordion, violin, and clarinet were all in use, all played fairly straight without heavy modifications it seemed, but in a style associated with electronic dance music rather than for instance classical chamber. And that said, there was a laptop in evidence onstage, and (being a violinist myself) I could tell that Jones was live-sampling her violin parts and looping them, which is a purely electronic element; I’m sure there was a lot more going on electronically besides. I really enjoyed the group’s dreamy grooves.
The next artist, Little People, then presented the common stereotype of electronic music: one dude bent over a table, turning knobs and occasionally tweaking a laptop. He played a fairly downtempo set that went well as a follow-up to Rena Jones, keeping the overall feel mellow although bringing in some heavy beats in the latter half. Also in the latter half of his set, I was surprised when he worked in the vocal chorus of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”, and later on some old funk-style horns, suggesting he was using a fair amount of samples at least in the latter half. I noticed during his set how well the sound system was set up: despite the room-filling beats, I felt fine without earplugs even standing stage-side under the speakers, though I put them in later just for safety.
The official schedule had Blockhead up next, but curiously to me, Blockhead was on the Showbox marquee as though he were the headliner, and sure enough Wax Tailor was next to perform, with Blockhead closing out the night. Wax Tailor himself, producer JC Le Saoût, was joined by a trio on electric guitar, electric violin and bass guitar, and electric cello; while introducing them after the first song, he also mentioned they were missing a flute player due to illness. Later, both a singer and a rapper joined them on many of the songs.
A banner across the DJ table proclaimed “Wax Tailor & the Dusty Rainbow Experience” as though “the Dusty Rainbow Experience” might be the backing band’s title, but in fact it referred to the overall narrative theme of the evening, based on his most recent release, 2012’s Dusty Rainbow from the Dark. The songs were orchestral trip-hip-hop cinematic soundscapes with a sort of 1930s–1940s vibe, like a mash-up of Disney’s animated features, film noir, early sci-fi, and radio dramas. Really the whole performance was something of a modern electronic/hip-hop take on an oratorio—a musical drama like an opera but without actors performing the drama onstage, although to some extent that aspect was fulfilled by the animated films playing in the background. Unfortunately, despite what I just said about the sound system’s quality, between the crowd noise and music playing (and wearing earplugs—protect your hearing, kids!), I was unable to pick out enough of the recorded voiceover narrative parts to follow along with the story, making me feel I was missing out on the full experience. However, it was a minor complaint in a great 90-minute performance that was still a lot of fun to watch and hear.
Opening a set with a Suzanne Vega “Tom’s Diner” vocal sample is an excellent way to win me over, so I was disposed to like Blockhead from the outset. Although the crowd visibly diminished after Wax Tailor, still a healthy number stayed, ready for dancing, and Blockhead delivered with a fairly mellow mix in line with Wax Tailor’s more hip-hop styled stuff. He dropped and mixed in a lot of different things, including several more surprises like the wordless singing from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and a sample from Tears for Fears’ “Shout” which kept reeling me back in just as I was losing interest. Along with those recognizable samples, a slight shift up in tempo to a sort of low-key drum and bass finally got me properly dancing. And really, every night at Decibel Festival should end with me dancing, so it was a full success.