“Furious and uncompromising”: the enduring live power of Richie Hawtin

On Saturday night, Richie Hawtin brought his new live show to Sydney’s Vivid LIVE. inthemix sent dedicated dance head Jim Poe to review. 

Vivid LIVE is all about the intersection of music, performance, art and light, and you could hardly imagine a more appropriate headline act for it than Richie Hawtin.

The Berlin-based techno god has always been big on concept and spectacle in his live performances, consistently pushing boundaries in the spaces where human meets machine and machine meets art. On Saturday, Hawtin brought the latest iteration of his show — a DJing-plus- live-performance hybrid billed as ‘CLOSE: Spontaneity & Synchronicity’ — to Vivid LIVE’S outdoor harbourside venue at Sydney Opera House’s Northern Boardwalk.

As night fell on Sydney Harbour and the prismatic lights of Vivid illuminated the landmarks around Circular Quay, including the massive sails of the Opera House, rain began to pelt the city. As foreboding as this may have been for an outdoor gig on a winter’s night, it actually seemed like the perfect atmosphere for Hawtin’s dark and edgy techno.

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Credit: Prudence Upton

Early arrivers, huddled in the disposable plastic rain ponchos being distributed at the gate, were treated to a brilliant live opening set from Sydney local Trinity. She combined ambient, electro and techno, complex broken beats and melodic synths ringing out over the overcast harbour and setting a suitably unearthly mood as the rain eased off.

“Combined with the dystopian quality of the fog-enshrouded Opera House, it had the feel of the first scene of a sci-fi thriller.”

Local heroes Mad Racket DJs were up next, and let loose for two hours of 4/4 techno and hard house, warming up the quickly gathering sold-out crowd, a mix of backpackers and locals – many of the latter, including myself, longtime fans pushing middle age.

When it was time for Hawtin to go on, the lights dimmed, a deep and ominous ambient hum pulsated from the speaker stacks across Bennelong Point, and a crew of technicians dressed in black rushed to set up his elaborate gear – several racks of synths and other instruments as well as the cameras mounted on tripods that are integral to the CLOSE show. Combined with the dystopian quality of the fog-enshrouded Opera House, it had the feel of the first scene of a sci-fi thriller — like a crew of scientists unleashing something beyond their control.

Credit: Prudence Upton

That sci-fi vibe is Hawtin’s zone and he knows how to work it. As the star and his gear were unveiled and massive plumes of brilliantly lit smoke enshrouded the stage, his squelching synths and pulverizing beats certainly sounded like a giant futuristic machine was gliding across the harbour.

The CLOSE concept represents Hawtin’s effort to be more down to earth and remove some of the things that separate him from the audience. Compared to the Plastikman Live show, featured at Future Music Festival here in 2011, in which he played inside a shimmering translucent structure that resembled a spaceship or an alien cocoon, the stage setup is stripped down.

“Hawtin’s sounds were furious and uncompromising, a complex but precise barrage of rhythm and noise that expertly pushed the crowd.”

There’s no elaborate set design: Hawtin and his gear are close to the crowd, right at the front of the stage; and the projected video feed is continually focused on his hands as they play. The music is a blend of DJing and live modular playing, with Hawtin chopping and changing bits of tracks and layering them with his own synth lines and effects.

That said, it was a spectacular show in every sense of the word. Hawtin’s sounds were furious and uncompromising, a complex but precise barrage of rhythm and noise that expertly pushed the crowd, unpredictable bass drops provoking big cheers at odd intervals.

Despite their minimalist focus on Hawtin at work, the visuals, projected onto the huge screen behind him, were stunning, with many trippy variations on the shape, colour and movement of his hands moving across his machines. How long has it been since someone used the word cyberdelic, and meant it as sincere praise? That’s how I’d describe it. Often the projections and stage lighting seemed to be in sync with Vivid light show on the distant Harbour Bridge – it was an awesome setting for the performance.

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Credit: Prudence Upton

As much a master of techno dynamics as Hawtin is (give the man credit, he’s been doing this for 30 years), there are times when his playing can feel far too clinical. Amid the pummelling beats, I found myself waiting for a melody or a funky bassline to take me to that other level — but Hawtin was light with those elements compared to his endless combinations of drum sounds and synth noise.

Whatever soul it may have lacked, Hawtin’s thrilling spectacle and relentless groove was truly something to behold.

Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1.

All images by Prudence Upton / Supplied by Sydney Opera House