The corporatist Live Nation recently opened up a new venue in Silver Spring, MD (The Fillmore) in order to extend their commercial domination and corporate blandness to DC, but luckily for the independently-owned 9:30 Club, many acts have chosen to remain loyal to a venue that has developed a strong reputation over the years. It’s not just that owner Seth Hurwitz was thoughtful enough to provide shower facilities to inject Western standards of civilization into the difficulties of touring, but also that 9:30 Club usually just gets the details right.
And so, when Live Nation’s local managers tried to woo DC’s own Thievery Corporation to play a summer 2011 show, the band passed on an easy payday that would have generated some street cred for Live Nation’s taxpayer-subsidized musical palace. Thievery instead played a phenomenal outdoor show at an unorthodox venue — a makeshift tennis stadium — for 9:30-affiliated IMP Productions.
And so it has continued. The band continued its show of loyalty with another recent series of Furious-Fire-Marshall shows at 9:30 Club, presenting another opportunity for the band’s diverse fan base to revel in the Raj’s palace-meets-1920s-Parisian-opium-den-meets-1970s-Jamaican-beach-party that is a Thievery Corporation show. Now, this isn’t to say that Eric Hilton in particular doesn’t have any personal interest here; as the head of a burgeoning restaurant/bar empire that includes a handful of establishments in the same recently reinvigorated neighborhood, he definitely has some skin in the game.
Those hospitality industry ventures have clearly riffed on the vibe given off by Hilton and Rob Garza’s musical endeavors. The band’s live ambiance is reminiscent of the decor of Hilton’s still-hopping Eighteenth Street Lounge, featuring a stage setup with Persian rugs, an antique chandelier and a vintage couch. Musically, the mélange of globally inspired lounge music incorporates sitar, trumpet, tenor sax, thumping bass, dueling drums, guitar and a shoeless bassist. In between those lounge-y tunes the band throws down reggae-centric numbers that give rise to waves of audience adrenaline in between amorously dreamlike, exotic soundscapes.
Thievery may only officially consist of Eric Hilton and Rob Garza, but its live show is primarily driven by the steady thump of bass provided by Ashish Vyas. Whether it’s a lounge tune or a more thumping reggae number, Vyas provides the spiny structure around which the songs take shape. In fact, even when you’re often not entirely sure what Hilton and Garza are adding to the performance on their decks, you can always feel Vyas vibrating rhythmically through your organs. Smartly, Vyas knew enough to reposition himself on top of a speaker when about 20 tipsy femme fatales got on stage to dance during the encore. After all; he does perform barefoot.
Guitarist/sitarist Rob Meyers brings a similar virtuosity to the performance whether he’s killing it on his Gibson Les Paul or chilling cross-legged on the just left-of-center couch while strumming his sitar. Which brings up a question…do they have a couch tech? Who has to move that thing into and out of place for each performance?
My bet is that it’s the same guy who is responsible for ensuring that Rob Garza’s bottle of Patron Silver is strategically placed on stage betwixt a score of musicians rivaled only by The Polyphonic Spree. A cast of characters rotates after each song, and as if to further the perception that this is basically one big house party, half of them spend half of the show amongst the audience.
And quite a diverse audience it is to behold, this Tribe Called Thievery Corporation. You have your early-twenties stoned hippie chicks who have updated their languid and circular treading water moves for the 21st century. Your have your people who dress like they’re going to an art opening…a lot of black, naturally. You have your scenester types who are there because they know this is the place to be in DC tonight. And, you have people like me…who know that they’re right.
Sure, I’m not totally down with their propensity for showering the audience with political polemics of reggae-cum-African paramilitary values. I could do without the 100+ hat tips to “DC!” and insistent reminders that we were watching “Thievery Corporation!” during the show, even as I appreciate the fact that none of these space-filling shout-outs were identical. And seriously Girl-in-the-Union Jack-t-shirt…if you’re going to get on stage, just dance. Don’t take photos of yourself and your friends. Act like you’ve scored before, dammit.
But those were trifles amongst an excellent and extremely entertaining evening. They are almost forgettable annoyances compared to the roof-raisin’ rendition of “Sound the Alarm” — featuring Sleepy (not Stevie) Wonder — that conjured up memories of Pop Will Eat Itself’s industrial classic, “Ich Bin Ein Auslander.” Mr. Lif joined on stage for an incredible jam on “Culture of Fear” that smartly highlights the idiocy of our Homeland Security color chart. And Sleepy did it again in his BDUs with a symbolically staccato delivery on parts of “Radio Retaliation.” If I were a fighter – I’m not – I’m pretty sure I would have been ready to hit someone.
A Thievery show doesn’t really provide the venue for hitting each other; it just isn’t the proper mosh pit milieu. That isn’t to say that there aren’t bodies flying everywhere on the more upbeat numbers, such as when they closed the first set with “Warning Shots.” There isn’t a lot to say about it, except that it pretty much featured everyone in the venue jumping up and down in unison with arms raised and heads spinning as the place went absolutely wild. Insanity reigned and if you weren’t having fun at this precise moment, then you are probably not the sort of person that should go to a non-opera/ballet/classical/”inspirational” concert at all. For the rest of us, it was that sort of ridiculously awesome and sublime moment that defines why one would go to see a show.
The only thing more ridiculous was their attempt to reclaim that level of insanity during the encores – particularly the poorly-conceived second encore – which were wholly unable to match up to the tantric intensity of that one special moment in time. While I always enjoy the chance to see them perform “The Richest Man in Babylon” (and this was no exception) there was just no recapturing the ascendant glory of “Warning Shots.” It was perhaps a cautionary tale of the dangers of set list/encore construction, and probably the adrenaline equivalent of serving as a desk clerk on the police force after having been at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. The alarm sounded, sure, but it just didn’t elicit the same effect as the poignant moments that had preceded.