Underworld may already be one of the greatest live electronic acts of today. But after last Friday night’s show at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, they have undoubtedly proven themselves to be one of the greatest live acts today, period. This may be hard for some to swallow. To many, the notion of live electronic music still means a lone DJ spinning prerecorded tracks to a room reeking of sweat and Vick’s Vapo-Rub. Nonetheless, Underworld may be the first group of its kind to successfully perform electronic music in the form of a concert, rather than a rave.
As Underworld took the stage to an incredibly packed house around 10:30 p.m., the words “New York” appeared on the huge bank of bubble-shaped screens behind the band. As if responding to the overwhelming cheers of the crowd, the words expanded until they filled the entire background of the stage. The show opened with the classic “Mmm Skyscraper I Love You” from the group’s first album, 1993’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman.
Karl Hyde, the group’s modestly self-proclaimed MC, danced frenetically about the stage, proclaiming, “And I see Elvis/ And I hear God on the phone.” Despite the less than traditional setup of the stage — a large bank of mixers, computers, sequencers and other equipment instead of guitars and a drum kit — Underworld’s stage presence did not suffer. Karl Hyde’s raw charisma was in part to thank, but the group’s visual art and creative design collective, Tomato, turned the concert into a truly mind-blowing experience.
Phenomenal laser light shows accompanied some of the group’s high-energy songs. “King of Snake” coincided with a huge fan of solid green light that descended upon the audience. It was welcomed with screams of ecstasy before it rose up again to display spiraling patterns contained within the light. During “Dark and Long” (aka “Dark Train”) the green light transformed into a cylinder, creating a laser tunnel, and at one point a three dimensional rotating cube was projected upon smoke in mid-air. After the show, some audience members said, “I didn’t even know they could do that with lasers.”
The rest of the set list included a number of tracks from the group’s new album “A Hundred Days Off,” live favorites such as an especially banging rendition of “Born Slippy” and a version of “Cowgirl/Rez” early in the set. But perhaps the biggest treat of the night was a rarity for the fans, the dark and beautiful “Dirty Epic.”
For concert purists, the group even included a fair amount of spontaneous improvisation. This is no easy task for a band that has little more than knobs and dials to work with. But Underworld further asserted their status as a great live band by demonstrating that electronic music need not be prerecorded or even planned ahead of time.
As the rave scene is drawing to a close, or at the very least becoming commercialized into an unrecognizable form, aficionados of electronic music may find solace in the fact that their music is becoming legitimized in a concert setting. The future of electronic music and its performance will largely be guided by the incredible capability of Underworld.