Sunday, October 01, 2006

in search of sunrise in austin


Nathan McWaters ~  Austin, TX - 01SEP06 - The heralds had proclaimed the coming of the thing long in advance: ‘Tiesto is playing in Austin’. Dutifully, I recycled that same news onto phocas.net’s forum, a sort of “Hey, guess who ELSE is coming to Texas in September?” aside note just because it’s not every day that the proclaimed #1 DJ In The World, a loaded sobriquet at the best of times, comes to visit; but then, this is also Texas, where nothing is considered to be a small affair, and whose internecine club warfare managed to book Paul van Dyk and John Digweed in two different cities on the same night in September, so perhaps it wasn’t too farfetched a thing to want to show off a bit on the phocas forum.

I hadn’t actually intended to go to this, really. Tiesto, like I said, is something of a sinister name to rancorous EDMers in the States, some of it perhaps justified due to past experiences where certain expectations were not met, some of it attributed to his reputation of being a sort of prima donna to work with and impossible to please. His track record in a live setting is a mixed-bag of emotions, ranging from awe-striking to nauseating; the same crowd that can call him “a no-talent sell-out” and Photoshops his face into a visage of the Devil also voted him “#1 DJ In The World” for five years running, and fills stadiums with tens of thousands of themselves. I had never seen Tiesto in person before, and from what I knew and had heard of his work, I reasoned that my life would not end if I opted not to pay $35 for an advance ticket. It was also in a venue I wasn’t familiar with: Austin Music Hall is a converted warehouse near the water treatment plant in downtown Austin, and its usual bookings are rock concerts.

A little bit of cajoling, a press-pass and a sweetening of the pot by the inclusions of Sean Carnahan and Kenneth Thomas as the openers, and I folded like an origami crane. I had never before optioned on the “You’re press, you’re getting in for free” perk that I used to grouse about other people getting to take advantage of; indeed, I did and still do take pride in paying my fair share into venues. I grabbed for this one, though, because even I’m reluctant to drop nearly half a hundred dollars to see a DJ spin, and if the whole thing went sour, at least I could console myself with “At least I didn’t pay for it.

The sun was setting on Austin when I arrived, found semi-decent parking on a Friday night downtown, and headed over to link up with my point of contact. Surveying the growing line of ticket holders, I quickly passed through security was in.

The Austin Music Hall required a significant amount of reconnoitering. It really is a converted warehouse, with a full stage, two bars, light systems all over the ceiling, and a second VIP level that is warded against all intruders by security people immune to sweet-talk and just as serious about keeping the rabble out as the Secret Service is. It is an immense space, capable of containing a listed 3000-person capacity before it becomes a fire hazard. Aside from Longhorn Stadium, I don’t think there was a place they could have opted to host Tiesto and the horde better suited. It was filling even as the first beats began thumping out of the massive speaker banks positioned on either side of the stage.

Sean Carnahan has been spinning out of Houston for a good while now, and is a pretty well-known name throughout all of Texas ever since his college days in Austin. He has been known to get picked up to open for giants in cities all over the state, as well as in a few others. He had been the original opening choice for Hernan Cattaneo when he played at Sky earlier this year, he co-owns Tastylick Studios with Randall Jones, is on the Balance Record Pool, and is so integrated with EDM and music in particular throughout the South that it’s practically a given that he’s had a residency in virtually every venue in every major city with a scene from Miami to Las Vegas. He came to this event loaded for lions, tigers, and bears, and at 2100 hours, he began hunting season. I was still taking shots and trying to find a “happy spot”, so I didn’t put a lot of effort into track spotting for his set, but he had nearly a thousand people on the immense dance floor before he finished. A curious blend of tech-house and trance had the crowd already burning calories, and Sean was obviously into it as well.

It was during Sean’s set that I realized some drawbacks to the AMH and its setup. Firstly, the stage is not only gigantic, it is tall. Tall enough that when you put a podium with video screens onto it, from the front row of the crowd, you as the DJ are nearly obscured, and there’s a good 10 meters of distance between you and the audience from the center of the stage. It is the most impersonal setup I have ever encountered in a venue before. The DJ is up there, virtually alone, and the masses are down in a pit and far away. Getting a shot from the audience level at all was accomplished only by two twists of fate: I am tall, and Sean is tall. There are no elevated positions anywhere on the main floor to overcome the height of the stage and the DJ podium, and the VIP section is on the far side of the warehouse’s entire length. Add in that the smoke and dry ice machines were all on stage with the DJ, the speakers, the light system controls, and the nifty projection screens, and it looked more like an exercise in camouflage, cover and concealment than anything else. Shooting the crowd would be easy; shooting the DJ was going to be a pain.

I ended up doing a lot of blind shooting, raising my hand in the air and triggering the camera at random to get some kind of elevation. I was looking very forward to getting some time up on stage once Tiesto took control and I had access to a backstage pass. I got a couple of decent shots of Sean, sweating like a beast and doing his thing using the small repertoire of tricks my measly little digi-cam comes with, but mostly plied the crowd, getting candid shots to capture the scene as best as possible.

Note: smoke machines + 2000 people + humidity from a 90-degree Texas evening = fog. Before Sean relinquished deck control, there were almost 2000 people in the AMH, all on the dance floor or crowding the bars for bottles of water or *insert drink here*, and despite the AMH having a no smoking policy in effect, there was a haze that was visible to the naked eye even in the scant lighting. Made flash work a true pain, but the hurting was still to come.

Sean finished out his set to an extremely appreciative crowd, and he looked like he had run a marathon when he was done. He definitely proved he can hang with the big dogs, if there had been any doubts. His set got the entire place dancing like there was ass in their pants, to coin a phrase from a certain comic strip. Lostep’s “Burma (Pillow One Remix)” heralded the arrival of Kenneth Thomas to the decks on the heels of Sean’s absolutely stellar set.

Kenneth Thomas is already a burgeoning “future big name” in EDM, if he isn’t a big name already. Perfecto’s newest talent signatory, he’s been burning up venues, pumping sets over the airwaves, and headlining events of his own all over the United States. Coming out of probably the most anti-progressive/anti-trance city in the nation, he dragged trance shrieking and clawing back into Detroit’s scene, and established himself as a progressive/trance force to be reckoned with. He also isn’t afraid to confess a huge Oakenfold influence in his rise, and wields both DJ and producer powers with singular skill. As an opener for Tiesto, his selection was almost perfect; his style would be diverse enough to please a notoriously fickle Austin EDM crowd, and yet not be so off-the-wall that it would clash with Tiesto’s own brand of epic trance. He was also selling t-shirts, one of which I happily bought and wore immediately.

I had never gotten to catch a Kenneth Thomas set prior to this; circumstances had kept him as one of those DJs who keeps coming back to Texas, but would spin at times that were certain to conflict with my schedule. I got to hear about how good he was from the local DJs that had opened/closed for him or shared deck time with him. I knew him from his “The Orange Room” and “Ghost In The Machine” tracks, not to mention some of who had been playing his tracks in their mixes; Nick Warren comes to immediate mind, as does Deep Dish. He did not disappoint. Dropping tracks like James Zabiela’s “Weird Science”, Audiojack’s “Robot”, and a really strange track that borrowed heavily from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” with a female lyricist that I couldn’t readily identify, he set up a tone that went on for a solid two hours and never let up.

While he was spinning, I was shooting, but lo and behold, a new obstacle had to be reckoned with: Kenneth Thomas is not tall. The DJ podium and those screens shielded virtually every shot that I took of him unless I had be face mashed up against one of the speakers and he leaned over the right side of the decks to open up for the shot. I lost some hearing, but I think I managed to get a couple of decent pictures while he was up there. He was nice enough to do a pose shot with me afterwards, which helped, but I alternated his set between being enmeshed in glorious trance and cursing the AMH for making this mission a sniper’s trial. Kenneth still had some work to do that evening before his next stop took him to Dallas to open for The Thrillseekers; he was slated to headline the Official Tiesto Afterparty at Alley 416 for another two hour set. I joked and asked him if he had enough smoke left after what he had done with the horde already, and he just beamed and told me I had to find out for myself. I was sold.


The AMH was packed full before Kenneth got off the decks, and it was a veritable sweatbox. I estimate there were nearly 3,000 people on the dance floor when Tiesto made his appearance, orange polo shirt and all, and the place just blew up. During both Sean’s and Kenneth’s set, there were folks falling out all over the place from the heat and the calorie-burn, and they infested the walls trying to catch a break for large portions of the evening. Tiesto steps on stage and shoots off one charisma-laced grin, and suddenly no one is sitting propped up by a wall. I don’t think the man had even plugged his headphones in when the crowd started chanting his name. After a set like the one Kenneth had just gotten done unleashing, I began to have my doubts about whether or not Tiesto would be able to top it, or even to rise to that level of energy; as it turns out, that was a lot like doubting Darth Vader is bad enough to wear all that black.


Tiesto dropped his first track, and then it was like living inside one gigantic aria that lasted over two hours, with two encores. The man is a technical genius, can read a crowd like a stock market ticker, has perfect timing, and can project charisma like a tractor beam and suck you right into his world. If he were a demagogue, his religion could probably dominate the globe. There were people weeping, overcome with emotion as he almost casually caressed the soul of the crowd with music. I had never seen anything like it before; it would have been honestly disturbing if it wasn’t so much fun to watch.


He brought a lot of his own tracks out for this, as was expected. He laid down “Flight 643 (Richard Durand Remix)”, “Dance4Life”, and when he kicked on “Lethal Industry” I thought there was going to be a PLUR riot. He also threw down a lot of other people’s stuff, which I had been led to believe he didn’t do all that often, but he was definitely working his mix mojo this evening. “4LB” by Divini & Warning, Karen Overton’s “Your Loving Arms (Club Mix)”, and what sounded suspiciously like Cicada’s “The Things You Say” were in the recipe. He also threw down his collaborative with BT “Loves Comes Again”, which was a pleasant surprise and one the crowd went berserk over.

About halfway through, Donnie handed off his backstage pass and gave me the ROE for how to behave while I was up there. I think he was a little concerned that I was going to do something fanboy-ish and try and hump Tiesto’s CD case or something. After some assurances, I was finally up on in the elevated position, on stage, with Tiesto spinning. I just started snapping off shots at the crowd and at Tiesto, staying behind the speakers throughout to be as unobtrusive as possible. I think I was up there for a good ten minutes before I figured Donnie might want his pass back, and I vamoosed and blended back into the moving mass of bodies. I heard on my way back there that the bars had run out of bottled water.

Tiesto played two encores, one of which was the ubiquitous “Adagio for Strings (Tiesto Mix)” by William Orbit, and the other one I couldn’t ID but it followed along the same trend. In between the encores, he walked the length of the stage and shook hands with the entire front row; I thought his security were all going to whelp kittens right there on stage out of terror that someone would grab hold and yank Tiesto right into the crowd, but it didn’t happen. The only thing that got torn apart at this gig was the Austin Music Hall.

Tiesto catches a lot of grief from the EDM community for not being an evolutionary or even a revolutionary DJ/producer, his sound hearkening back to the late ‘90s rather than the more “modern” progressive sound. After a set like the one he dropped, one that had 3,000 hardcore Austinites walking out of the AMH with wobbling knees and giddy looks on their faces, I think it’s only a matter of perfection being slower to evolve than the mediocre.

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