Monday, November 24, 2008

Event Review: Daniel Bell Underground at The Compound

Friday night the boyfriend and I fired up the Element and went adventuring into the wastelands of Bayview in search of a dirt road with a gate at the end, and beyond that gate, the promise of a very groovy night with legend Daniel Bell providing an eight-hour soundtrack. What we eventually found was not only a great night of truly deep techno with a Detroit master, but one of those legendary underground spaces that are fast disappearing from the San Francisco scene.

The party, produced by Kontrol, was at The Compound, a space perhaps best known among techno scenesters for its 16-speaker surround system. When you read that you probably think, “oh, yeah, big deal, sounds like a gimmick,” but once you’ve heard what music sounds like on that system, it makes you realize just how shitty every other club in this city is. It’s a small space that felt crowded with a hundred black-clad techno kids bobbing around in it, but as it filled up, the sound never seemed to get louder, even though every element, from the lowest bass to the highest treble, sounded absolutely clear and distinct. After going to clubs like Mighty, where the sonic philosophy is founded on pure brute force that leaves you feeling dazed and deafened, it was a relief to hear techno on a system that was designed for sonic subtlety and nuance. Bell was set up in the middle of the geodesic dome-like space, and one thing that I noticed almost immediately was that he didn’t have any monitors. Looking up we saw two monitors that were flown from the ceiling, and that’s all he needed, even with a crowd around him. The sound was so perfectly tailored to the space, it didn’t matter where you stood, and I had a hallucinatory moment when I thought that the music and the space were simultaneously giving shape to each other.

The same care and subtlety that went into the sound design of The Compound could also be found in Bell’s set. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a party where the DJ had enough time in their set to develop a true progression of mood. When we first arrived around 11 there weren’t that many other people in the space, and Bell was playing some fairly easy-going deep techno that was flavored with a little house, just the thing to help you unwind a bit. By the time we left around 2.30 he was eliciting whoops, but it wasn’t like he’d switched over to bangers; instead he had lifted the energy of the room subtlely, still playing minimal and deep sounds, and still making smooth mixes with little in the way of knob-twisting theatrics. It was one of the most mature, confident sets of techno I’ve heard in a long time, where the most minimal DJ intervention could have maximal effect.

Of course, one of the best things about underground parties is the crowd; it takes real connection to the scene, and often some degree of effort, to find yourself at one of these events, so there’s a pretty strong process of selection at work before anybody even shows up. The only folks the boyfriend and I knew were Monica and Tom Kat, but that didn’t stop us from having conversations with the guy who helped us park (who thought the boyfriend looked like “a wise guy” in his black hat, black sport coat, and white hoodie), one of the sound guys, and even two guys who disagreed with us over whether or not playing a snippet of the Booka Shade remix of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” was trite (we didn’t think it was). It was kind of a strange moment, which, literally disagreeable as it was, still meant we were among people who took the music, the DJing, and the whole vibe seriously. Given that most of my party experience in the recent past has been more about the scene than the music, it was nice to be among fellow heads for a while. It was, in fact, enough to make me wish I’d had the stamina, or at least the stimulants, to get me through the entirety of the night.

The Compound’s days are numbered; it’s in Added Area B, Parcel 1 of the Bayview Re-development plan that was passed back in June, so its likely fate is at the hands of a bulldozer driver. Losing that space will be yet another significant set-back in the development of our nascent techno scene, so let’s enjoy it, and the ideas and connections it fosters, while we can.

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