The Crystal Ballroom is not the ideal rave environment, and Ninjatune Records’ 5-DJ extravaganza (called the Zen TV Roadshow, featuring Amon Tobin, Kid Koala, Bonobo and Blockhead & Sixtoo) was not a candy-bracelet, glowstick or ecstasy haven. Despite the lack of enveloping visuals and florescent-decked drug dealers, Amon Tobin and his contemporaries dropped beats that kept the crowd entranced by wily rhythms and entrenched in hipster-hood. This added to the aura of late-’90s warehouse parties that electronic music is prone to provoking. But the Crystal Ballroom, although comparably priced to the underground party scene, is, by nature, much less earthy and entertaining.
A row of ten or so turntables was situated along the front edge of the stage. The turntables made the neck-height wall which lifted the performers above the audience a good four or five feet higher, thus furthering the disconnect between audience and performer. Behind this elevated performance space, a screen reflected projected images, and during the first set, Blockhead used this system to display his name. Was the crowd dazzled by this spectacle? Au contraire, mi amigo. As one guest said, a good party needs better visuals than the Crystal Ballroom is capable of delivering.
From the club’s balcony, the crowd’s movements were noticeable but disappointing, and the stage was, with the exception of some fancy Kid Koala turntablery that was occasionally projected on the screen, not visually interesting.
There was certainly a lack of the gleeful explosion of rhythmic gesticulation that the music warranted. Although some heads bobbed, the DJs would often lean an ear into a shoulder to pin headphones and free up hands.
The screen’s ambient imagery and the club’s psychedelic light show also fell short of the mark. But, from within the crowd that sat just below the stage, dance-like movements were perceptible. Maybe people were still trying to shake off the winter’s sedentary effects, or maybe they felt too cool to dance, but some of them were moving their bodies. When Kid Koala played his ambient rendition of “Moon River,” the screaming crowd revealed that everybody really was moved.
After the three opening DJs spun their hypnotic sets, but before Amon Tobin took over and presented his dark jungle of pulsating electronica, Kid Koala unleashed his jaw-dropping turntablist skills and scratched out intricate rhythms over a bed of infectious breakbeats.
At one point, Kid Koala took over the microphone and explained that in the late ’90s, Ninjatune would throw parties in the UK every three or four months where all the artists from the label would get together and play music.
They’ve all been working on other projects since then, but the Zen TV tour harkens back to those parties.
The label boasts Amon Tobin and various newer artists who have explored a similar vein of musical territory. For those keen on picking up flashy party vocabulary, some of the key buzzwords from the label’s website are downtempo, breakbeats and leftfield hip-hop.
Amon Tobin closed out the night with a set of killer beats and compelling textures. He makes his music by cutting up other recordings, often old jazz tunes and by using his favorite snippets as the building blocks (or samples) of his own compositions.
Back when his source material was being released, the musician’s creed was “if they aren’t dancing,’ yer not workin’.” A lot has changed since then, as evidenced by Thursday’s phlegmatic audience and substantial ticket price. But, despite the deficiencies of the crowd and venue, the music hit all the right spots. So maybe, what with Ninjatune being a record company anyway, it would be a good idea to skip the concert and buy the CD.