Five things we learnt at Moby’s Australian DJ gig

Moby doesn’t get out much these days – not to play live shows anyway. Having given up drinking (again), and more driven than ever to stay home and work on music, the 48-year-old has decided the touring life is not for him. His new album Innocents, which drops next week, is being supported by only three live gigs – all of them within a vegan-biscuit-toss of his castle in the Hollywood Hills. So we felt lucky to see him in any capacity here in Australia last week; a one-off “intimate” DJ set at Sydney’s Chinese Laundry sounded like a pretty hot ticket.

Though a veteran DJ from New York’s early-’90s rave heyday, the bald one’s only recently gotten behind the decks again after years spent focused on other pursuits, from recording to photography to charity. And it’s not just a nostalgia trip – as he told inthemix recently (in a face-to-face interview to be published soon), he’s been combing through Beatport for new sounds lately just like the rest of us. “Now when I DJ it’s 98% new records,” he says. “In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, electronic music was so marginalised… It’s been nice to see a cultural shift.” His sets at Coachella and Movement Detroit this year earned kudos from revellers young enough to be his grandkids; and he’s slated to headline the Decibel Festival in Seattle at the end of the month. So it was with a lot of curiosity (and maybe a little jonesing for old-school rave) that we braved the crush of punters downstairs in the ridiculously packed Laundry to hear what the man had in store. Here’s what we took away from the night.

#1 Moby is a consummate crowd-pleaser

OK, so we weren’t all that impressed with some of the newer tracks he unleashed on the night. The overall feel was “festival main stage,” and there were a few too many generic snare rolls and mashleggable drops for our taste. You’d think someone with Moby’s knowledge and experience would go for some dark Detroit tech or some funky speed garage that harks back to the classics a bit more than the Beatport top-100 stuff he was playing.

That said, it was good to see him getting into it and engaging a crowd of relative youngsters on their own terms. The punters were undeniably psyched, and the sight of his bald dome bobbing up and down in the minimalist green lighting as he worked the fader, or the moments when he looked up and implored the crowd in the packed, sweaty room to raise their hands, were thrilling in their own right. Moby’s always been about energy, and making people jump up and down and go “Woooooo!” – and he’s not particularly fussed with how he goes about doing it. The more refined club experience was never his bag. This gig reminded us that electronic music is supposed to be fun, and clearly Moby was having fun.

Bonus crowd-pleasing points: Moby didn’t have to tell anyone to raise their hands when he dropped a remix of his signature hit Porcelain; the familiar heavenly synth chords – isolated, layered and echoed endlessly – filled the little room with evocative emotion. Whatever else can be said about him, this guy is a great producer.

#2 Might be stating the obvious, but Moby helped father this whole EDM thing

Moby has spent so many years as the avatar of a certain brand of melodic, chill indie-electronica it’s easy to forget his early hits were some of the first records to popularise techno for the masses. And we don’t mean jazzy, housey, über-cool Detroit techno – we mean fluoro-clad, smiley-faced, banging rave music, expressly designed for parties in football stadiums and aircraft hangars. So if anyone knows what he’s doing with this stuff it’s Moby.

This was even more clear at last week’s gig when he played Thousand – a tune that was a central part of his stage show 20 years ago (see this account of his 1993 North American tour) and still does the trick. When the Gothic synths and scary tortured-diva vocals gave way to the brutal industrial kick, slowly ratcheting up to an insane 1000 BPM and sending the Laundry into a frenzy, it reminded us that today’s purveyors of hardcore beats for big crowds, from Skrillex to Steve Aoki, owe something to this guy.

#3 Size matters, and intimate is (mostly) a good thing

It was great to be one of the lucky few in a 400-capacity venue at a rare DJ gig from a music legend. The electric excitement from everyone there, all focused on the little guy in the darkness somewhere behind the booth’s plexiglass, was palpable. We’ll take this over Hordern Pavilion or a dusty paddock most days. On the other hand, the space wasn’t ideal for such a huge international talent – the room quickly went from “sweatbox” to “cramped,” and it wasn’t easy to move around, dance, grab a beer, or get a bit closer to Moby to show our appreciation.

#4 Old-school rave records are hard to beat for sheer power

By far the highlight of the night was when Moby dropped Bizarre Inc.’s Playing with Knives. This 1991 UK rave classic – a mainstay of Moby’s sets back in the day – does it all in seven gloriously hyperkinetic, hyper-melodic minutes, from happy hardcore to pre-jungle breakbeat to string-and-piano drenched garage. And he came by it honestly – far from sounding retro, the crazy changes and wicked breaks sounded really fresh, and we’re not sure many of the younger folk in attendance knew it was an old record. Sure enough they were hitting the ceiling.

#5 Moby rocks

Literally. From his Bad Brains t-shirt, to the way he mixed Thousand out of Led Zeppelin’s timeless ballad Going to California, to the way he closed his set with – we kid you not – Guns ‘N Roses’ Paradise City, Moby was on a mission to preach the gospel of rock’n’roll to the youth of Sydney and demonstrate the connections between their parents’ (or grandparents’) rebellious music and today’s EDM (minus the big hair of course). This is not necessarily a new development – Moby’s rocker side has always been explicit. He’s covered Joy Division, recorded an entire hardcore album (‘Animal Rights’), and recently recorded a single with Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne (‘The Perfect Life’). But the metal thing was new to us – there’s no way he would have dropped GNR back in the day, it just wasn’t punk enough. Clearly his rock vision has gotten mellower and more inclusive. Anyway, who doesn’t love Paradise City? The place went nuts, everyone swaying and singing along as if it were the LA Coliseum circa 1989. One complaint: Why didn’t he play it all the way through? The climactic doubletime coda is kind of the whole point of the song. And why did he end his set early anyway?

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