If anything, the Moby-spearheaded Area:One package, which wrapped up its tour at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion on Sunday, suffered from an embarrassment of riches.
With nearly 20 bands and DJs arrayed on three stages over nine hours, there was something worth checking out at given moment, and often two or three. This meant that choices had to be made: to see the Orb in an automaker-sponsored DJ tent meant missing the reunited New Order on the main stage, or forgoing one of the impressive collection of turntablists and MCs holding court on the small urban stage.
With the eclectic collection of musicians on board, and musical ideas bouncing back and forth between bands like electrons in an atomic reactor, it quickly became apparent that the best way to appreciate the breadth of Area:One was to surf from stage to stage, sampling bits from each. The experience became akin to clicking through a Web site, where congruences and links form their own kind of logic. Experienced this way, Area:One delivered a night of heady exuberance.
The main stage started off with Rinocerose. Their overdriven AC/DC guitars and emphatic bass lines sounded quite comfortable over sequenced drum beats and keyboards, even if the band looked a little bit silly posing like over-the-top heavy metal musicians or air guitarists, an image faux pas that was easy to forgive because, well, they’re French.
From there, it was a short jaunt – both musically and spatially – to the hip-hop stage where Breakestra conjured up its own version of engineered music, rapping over the urgent horns, percolating bass and razor-sharp guitar of classic, fat-back soul. Back at the main stage, the Roots were using similar elements to their own ends on their socially aware raps. Like most of the hip-hop artists on the bill, the Roots eschew gangsta cliches for a more nuanced view of urban culture.
Newcomer Mystic performed a similar bit of linguistic alchemy. The Oakland-based performer – a kind of West Coast Jill Scott – has worked with respected producers such as the Angel, and her raps are starkly literate cautionary tales of the ghetto. Ironically, this kind of performance demands as much “street cred” as gangsta rap, which Mystic is able to make work, effortlessly flowing from detailed vignettes to lyrical boasts.
With two of their biggest hits, “Rosa Parks” and “Ms. Jackson” dealing with strong women, Outkast found another way to turn rap cliches on their ear. The contrast between Big Boi’s otherworldly charisma and Dre’s down-to-earth realism added a touch of George Clinton’s stoned whimsy and Sly Stone bounce to the mix.
Another option was to check out the DJ tent, where Timo Maas pumped out four-on-the-floor techno, the Orb’s fizzy loops made their way around the tent like drunken satellites and Paul Oakenfold expertly orchestrated the crowd’s ecstatic mood.
At the urban stage, the X-ecutioners gave an impressive display of their turntable prowess. In contrast to the computerized chill of the dance music DJs, the X-ecutioners had a kind of handmade charm. Although they do not play conventional instruments any more than the other acts, their music relied on old-school manual dexterity, building their songs from bites and slices of records.
New Order cast the longest musical shadow of any act on the bill. It’s nearly impossible to imagine most of the music heard at Area:One without their groundbreaking use of computers and instruments, their early championing of remixes and crossover appeal. Moby named them as a major influence during his set.
But they were easily the biggest disappointment on the bill. With former Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan sitting in for Gillian Gilbert, New Order sounded terribly musty and old fashioned. While 1980s hits “Blue Monday” and “Temptation” were given solid renditions, most of their set had a studied indifference that seemed out of place. This was emphasized by Bernard Sumner’s comment when introducing “Crystal” (from their upcoming Reprise album “Get Ready”) that the band “was willing to do anything to get their music heard.” Dripping with corrosive irony, it felt like a dated remnant of indie post-punk rock, when self-effacement was seen as integrity. But for bands like Moby and DJs such as Paul Oakenfold and the Orb, selling out isn’t an option, it’s an imperative.
On its own terms, the band’s performance worked, but at Area:One, New Order’s innate suspicion of sensual pleasure and dutiful performance felt cribbed and dour. It’s worth noting that New Order’s music sounded better in other contexts. When Oakenfold slipped a remix of one of their songs into his set, it made perfect sense. And Moby (backed by New Order including Gillian Gilbert and Red Hot Chili Pepper guitarist John Frusciante) was more convincing singing Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades” than New Order was performing that band’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
It was left to Moby’s energized closing set to tie together all the musical strands heard at Area:One. Scampering around the two-level stage, his performance was a piece of wish fulfillment, the kind of show the teenage Richard Melville Hall, playing air guitar in his bedroom, would have imaginedputting on. It lent a sweet quality to his performance: he got to play the “self-indulgent guitar solo” he dreamed about; he sung his version of the blues with an imposing, big-voiced gospel singer; and he was backed by a blonde, punky sylph of a bass player, as well as a willowy string trio. He seamlessly moved from early ’90s techno such as “Go” and “Feels So Real” to “South Side” a hit from his 1999 breakthrough album “Play.”
Strains of other music, from hardcore punk to the new wave of Talking Heads, drifted in and out of the songs as a testament to his omnivorous musical appetite, and adding to the sincerity of his commitment to put on a festival that “combined all different kinds of music.” Against all odds, he succeeded. Brilliantly.