October 19, 2000

The Amazing Mr. Moby

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This summer I got in an argument in a Florida bar with a drunken old man who claimed that hip-hop artists had no talent because they couldn’t play Creedence Clearwater Revival. I argued that music changes, and that just as the Roots can’t play Creedence, Creedence couldn’t play Mozart. That doesn’t mean these bands lack talent.

Rap lyrics and techno beats have replaced revolution calls and guitar solos in the lexicon of modern pop. So what if they can’t play the classics?

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was wrong, of course.

In front of my face Sunday night, Moby took out his electric guitar and played a short medley of The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. And he did it as a joke.

We’ve moved past the old sounds, the old guitar riffs and whining hippies. But that doesn’t mean music doesn’t have the same base talents. Moby clearly demonstrated he posseses all those talents. He brought to Bailey Hall a look into music’s future while showing us he still respects its past.

Moby also brought to Bailey Hall one of the best pieces of showmanship, sponsorship, and laser-light artistry that Cornell has seen in a longtime. Along with his entourage of guitarist, drummer, D.J. and back-up singer, Moby brought a state-of-the-art comprehensive stage set-up that could have made U2 green with envy.

The evening started off with Hybrid, a dance/trans trio of two keyboardist/mixers and a drummer. One person sitting behind me said, “It sounds like a rave. Its weird.”

And he was right. It did sound like a rave and it was weird. Not that raves are weird, but raves with rows of chairs are weird. Had Hybrid been on stage at Barton Hall, they would have been an amazing show. Bailey was not the right venue and fear began to creep into the hearts of those around me that perhaps Bailey would not be the right venue for Moby either. The top-secret word from the Cornell Concert Commission was that Moby’s management wanted a much different and more expensive pay scheme to play at Barton. Alas, the less appropriate Bailey would have to suffice.

Surprisingly, as Moby began his two hour long set, the setting seemed perfect. While Hybrid stood behind two Korg keyboards, Moby came running out, his bald head shining from the spotlight and flashing strobe lights. He wore a white Moby t-shirt giving the audience the idea that he was not your normal, leather pants rock star, nor your grunge-retro-hippie.

Hybrid’s opening act was pure techno, and though they mixed beats, the tempo changes felt forced. Hybrid’s greatest talent was undoubtedly an incredible sense of rhythm, mixing beats off-the-cuff — sometimes sounding a little off, but mostly perfect.

But Hybrid felt like they were playing a Barton Hall dance party. The bass was so strong that my shirt was flapping from the air being disturbed by the heavy, low line. Impressive, but somewhat superfluous.

When Moby came out, his show was almost unerring, but had a varietal quality. The bald vegan was a ball of energy as he ran out onto the stage, raising his arms above his head — perhaps the only overused and trite posture of the evening — and screaming at the crowd.

If you expected Moby behind the keyboards and mixing machines though, you would have been disappointed. Throughout the show he was handed acoustic and electric guitars.

Starting with some hardcore dance, Moby moved to his signature NBC Olympic coverage intro song, “Porcelain.” An instant crowd pleaser, the song slowed down a rambunctious start. Yet as his back-up singer crooned and the impressive lighting flashed around Bailey, Moby stood with his guitar at the microphone and changed the show from a misplaced dance party to a concert fit for a packed auditorium. Those seats went mostly unused throughout the show.

Moby is perhaps best known now that every single track on his newest album, Play, has been licensed for all sorts of commercial usage. In total, over 400 corporations own rights to Moby songs. The man has more sponsorship than a racecar. Play is a great album, though. In his first 10 or so songs, Moby did eight from Play.

His sponsorship showed in his flashy stage setup: he had thousands of dollars worth of equipment and laser lights on motorized stands, Yahoo! Music free CDs, and rights to tons of overly licensed music. One couldn’t help being afraid Moby might come off even cleaner than his oversaturated commercial image. But he ventured to old songs like “Go” and even joked with the crowd by using his old reverb box to do a “bad vietnam war movie song medley.”

Moving easily from a hardcore dance trio, Moby played his acoustic with older, slowed down disco songs, making them practically unrecognizable.

Many times Moby mentioned that he “wrote this song with this guitar in my bedroom.” And as he rocked into the night on acoustic and electric guitars, he debunked a major myth about techno. Its very easy to condemn the techno beats as mere creations of computer generated rhythms. But Moby mentioned creating songs from Led Zeppelin guitar riffs, although his songs sound nothing like Led Zeppelin.

Its not that Moby merely punches beats into a computer. He sits with a guitar and writes songs. But then he takes them a step further, mixing perfect beats and sampling tracks, coming up with hybrid (so to speak) versions of rock songs. Moby proved that guy in the Florida bar wrong, and he proved me wrong as well. He can play the classics and he takes them to a level never imagined.

He brought the crowd back with hell-razing mixes of “Body Rock” and “Honey,” both off of Play as well. In his encores he deviated from his crystal clear act. He virtually rocked the crowd to a silence with an reprise acoustic version of “Porcelain.” Later he qualified “South Side” by saying that it was just a “rehearsal.”

I wrote in my notes, “that’s a pretty damn good rehearsal session.”

Amazingly, Moby’s energy never dissipated. Running around the stage, from his keyboard to his bongo drums to the corners of the stage rallying the crowd, the sweaty, hairless whirlwind never let his energy lessen. He played through it all, giving his back-ups time to relax as he went into acoustic solos.

Revolution, an upstart dance-music geared magazine, named Play one of the “50 albums that killed rock.” But Moby proved that rock is not dead. It’s transforming, it’s improving. No longer does a merely decent guitar solo get people out of their seats.

One must do more, use what’s available to strive for increasing complexity with rhythms, beats and rhymes. Moby showed us he writes music, not programs behind a computer and a mixing board.

Archived article by Jason Weinstein