Correction: I've found out since I wrote this review that it was actually Craig Kuna, not Nikola Baytala, who was spinning earlier in the evening. Mea culpa.
As we were getting ready to head out to hear Alex Smoke at Kontrol this past Saturday I realized that it has been over six months since the last time we checked out what was once my absolute first choice for San Francisco clubbing. What I discovered on this past Saturday was that, while I am still quite happy that Kontrol has been successful in bringing minimal techno artists to San Francisco, their migration from a quasi-underground art gallery space in the Tenderloin to one of San Francisco's biggest clubs has brought with it some changes in vibe that, for me at least, outweigh some of the positive aspects of the move.
We arrived at 10.30 with our friend J to find a line at the door; apparently doors at 10 really means doors at 10.30. We got drinks and found seats on the patio by the pool table; inside the music was just too loud for us to enjoy hanging out or even dancing. Not that we felt particularly moved to dance, as the first DJ, who I think was Nikola Baytala, was largely playing deep house; every few songs he would slip in something more interesting and techno-oriented, like Ritchie Hawtin's "The Tunnel," but it seemed more like these were conciliatory gestures toward the night's fan base than explorations into a genre that was of interest to him. We would dance for a track or two, but then it would shift back over into house and we would go outside. Unfortunately, I remember this as being the case the last time we came to Kontrol as well, and at that time our friend Tari was very disappointed that a party that had made its reputation as a minimal techno night seemed to have morphed, under the influence of End Up tradition, into yet another survey of deep house.
We had been expecting Alex Smoke to come on at 2.00, and, as a result, missed the first part of his set when he took to the controls at 1.15. What we did get to hear, however, made up for the dullness we experienced earlier in the evening. He was playing "live," and though there were some disconnects between individual songs, and I could have done without the 92.7 voice-overs announcing "Alex Smoke Playing Live at Kontrol," it was among the most interesting, and dance-inspiring, music I have heard in a long time. His tracks have an abstract spacious quality, with dark textures, that remind me of minimal trance, and the grooves are deep and solid. We heard one track off Paradolia, but all the rest was new to us.
Following Alex Smoke was Samim, who gets the prize for most intense DJ face. I almost enjoyed his set more than Alex Smoke's, as it had a slinky, sexy aspect that minimal techno often lacks. By the time 3AM was rolling around so was the majority of crowd, and when the trio of Marina girls in black cocktail dresses began to huddle and massage each other on the dance floor in front of us, and the lines for the bathroom were reaching back to the front entrance, we decided it was time to head out.
It was great to go out an hear, and dance to, good techno that was professionally put together on one of the best sound systems in the city. But the whole time we were there, the vibe seemed off to us. First there was the long digression into house music early in the evening, then, after 2AM, there was the arrival of clubbers in cha-cha heels and button-up shirts who seeemed to be there only because it's one of the few places in town open at that time. As the boyfriend put it, it was like being magically transported into the middle of 1015. The first time I went to a Kontrol party was to hear ModeSelektor at Rx Gallery, an event that remains among the highlights of my San Francisco nightlife experiences. After that we were monthly attendees, and I still have the memory of standing on the Eddy Street sidewalk, looking across the street to a gay strip club, and thinking how much it all reminded me of Berlin squat clubs after the wall came down. It was a slightly sketchy space in a way sketchy part of town, and that was what made it seem like something special and outlaw. Of course, the sound system sucked, they were likely to blow a fuse if they turned on the video projector, and it got so hot that you could see water coming down the walls, so I was thrilled when I heard that Kontrol was moving to The End Up. The benefits of that move - a better sound system, more space - now have to be weighed against the changes that the night has undergone as a result of becoming more mainstream. It is, in many ways, a much "safer" night out than it used to be, in terms of the space and location, but also in terms of the music, at least during the first part of the evening. This increased safety has widened Kontrol's appeal beyond the heads who helped it take off from the RX, and I'm happy for their success, but I rather miss that sweaty, underground vibe it had in the old days; for me techno always sounds better when it takes a little more effort, both physically and intellectually, to go out and hear it.