Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dirtbombs live

The Dirtbombs
Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto, July 15

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble/ DPT
The Great Hall, Toronto, July 7

Rock’n’roll and techno do not mix. On a good day, they’re sworn enemies. Which is why I was more than surprised to find myself at two shows in the past week where live rock bands attempted to emulate and/or interpret techno hits. The Dirtbombs, a garage rock band from Detroit paying homage to that city’s pioneering techno scene, were decidedly brilliant. Toronto ensemble DPT, an acronym for the unsubtly named Daft Punk Tribute, were decidedly not.

DPT walk a weird line between imitation and reinvention; they got off to a somewhat promising start by ripping through some of Daft Punk’s bigger hits in a relatively faithful fashion, delivered by two keyboardists (of course), a rhythm section, electric guitarist and a three-piece horn section; the latter was whip tight and the best part of the band. But the schtick wore off quickly. Some of it wasn’t the band’s fault: the notoriously terrible sound in the Great Hall buried the drums (!) in the mix, and the wildly gesticulating electric guitarist was having way more fun on stage than anything the audience was able to hear would warrant.

What started out as somewhat interesting quickly became interminable, with the exception of a show-stealing female vocalist. (Are there any Daft Punk songs with female vocals? Not being the biggest fan, I missed that somehow.) Once the hits were through, it was all too easy for DPT to devolve into limp jams that betrayed the band’s secret life as Humber College music students. (For the benefit of non-Torontonians, Humber College is known for producing musicians who value skill over soul; some of the best musicians I know went there for a year or two and left before they became corrupted. How do you spot a Humber College band? Five-string bass guitar and a MIDI wind instrument, for starters.)

Who knows: maybe I was just bored waiting for the amazing Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who transcend the New Orleans nature of most brass bands, bringing ’70s cinematic funk, hip-hop and arty fusion into their mix. If that’s not intriguing enough, let me describe them this way: a massive party with eight gorgeous half-naked African-American men doing magical things with their lips. Interested now?

But back to the techno. Back in the early ’90s when I was in a shitty alt-rock band, there was a band in London, Ont., that we’d often be billed with called Zuul’s Evil Disco, a third-rate Red Hot Chili Peppers rip-off with ironic disco wigs and other outlandish costumes. Somewhere underneath all the slap bass was just an excuse for Western frat kids to get too drunk to funk; I suspect DPT is the 21st-century version of that.

The Dirtbombs play ’70s garage rock, which attracts its own kind of drunken debauchery (on this night, it was the tank-top-clad douchebag picking fights at the front). But by approaching their techno covers from a genre standpoint, they breathe life into both the originals and their own sound.

Not being the biggest garage guy, I’ll confess that I hadn’t heard a note of the Dirtbombs’ music before hearing the new album, Party Store, which is a full-length tribute to Detroit’s techno history, rendered rock’n’roll style. It’s a brave move; I’m guessing most Dirtbombs fans don’t know that music at all (hence reviews like this one). Perhaps that’s why the crowd was somewhat subdued while the band dedicated the first half hour of its show to the new album, played as one continuous set—not unlike a DJ mix in the way each track segued into the next, and their sludgy, psychedelic take on Carl Craig’s “Bugs in the Bass Bin” used as a recurring theme to break up the beats.

The techno classics—including Juan Atkins’s “Cosmic Cars,” Kevin Saunderson’s “Good Life,” Derrick May’s “Strings of Life” and the landmark 1981 single by A Number of Names, “Shari Vari”—are perfectly suited to a band with two drummers, an amazing new bassist (recent recruit Chris Sutton, who joined after the recording), a guitarist (Ko Melina) who’s perfectly comfortable replicating the long sustained notes of the melodies without ever needing to embellish, and a frontman (Mick Collins) who brings his own style of baritone soul to the histrionic house divas heard on the originals. All the space of the originals is left intact even while power chords and thundering double-drum-set attacks bring the ruckus.

The rest of the set shifted gear and became considerably more frenetic: both the band’s tempos and the audience reaction, making it clear just how much of a shift the comparatively laid-back tracks from Party Store are for this band. And if I’d ever thought the Dirtbombs were interchangeable with a dozen other garage bands from the turn of the last decade, this show convinced me that they’re undoubtedly one of the best. The set ended with drummer Ben Blackwell leaping into the crowd with bass drum and floor tom in tow, the first of several trips necessary to set up his kit in the middle of the floor. Once there, the rest of the band exited the stage somewhat more conventionally, one by one, until only Blackwell was left pounding away. In the end, it’s the beat that drives the Dirtbombs. No wonder they made a techno record.

If the Dirtbombs’ audience was suitably impressed but not bowled over by their techno covers, I’d love to see how this would go down at the annual Detroit Electronic Music Festival; ideally, Collins should get the key to the city presented to him at the event for uniting two vital threads of the city’s music history.

An excellent read on Mick Collins’s commitment to the cause, proving that this whole affair is no ironic joke, is here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, if you were billed with Zuul's Evil Disco, you would have known those dudes were dirt poor, and practiced 5 days a week. I'm sure you didn't mind the loads of people they brought out. Name one song off their albums that sounded like the Peppers. Sad you are so jaded. Bands like yours needed band like them to give you exposure. I was never lucky enough to get on their bills. You have no appreciation for the fun of those days.