“May I freak this for you?”: The Final, Epic Night of Waveforms 2.0
Waveforms 2.0‘s last night was the best imaginable end to a series of shows that brought top musicians and producers to Asheville, NC. Over the course of the last month or so, the Asheville Music Hall has hosted artists whose backgrounds in electronic, dance, and hip hop has allowed them to create fresh beats that invoke tradition while reaching continuously toward innovation. The final show may have spoken to this more than any other, as old technology and new collided and came together in an explosive evening of artistic innovation that had the crowd going wild by the end of the night. The performances were accompanied by visuals projected on the side wall of the Asheville Music Hall, which included content ranging from the artistic to the athletic and the downright abstract. Asheville Music Hall has done a great job of managing and executing this series, and they get special props for this evening, when the crowd was bigger and crazier than it had been yet.
Throughout the evening, Musashi Xero, the Asheville hip-hop artist with a voice smoother than molten gold, played the role of emcee. Musashi is a natural performer and was a perfect host, taking charge during the time between sets to ensure that the beats never stopped. He is also comfortable engaging with the audience, and has a larger-than-life persona that lends itself to some highly entertaining wise-cracking. (“This is a sad song,” he winkingly said at one point, “Y’all gonna be crying.”) He filled the time between sets with his own work, plus a playlist of carefully curated tracks that combined the best of high-energy and chilled-out electronic music. Musashi is at his best when performing his own work, which gets him totally in his element. His lyrics invoke landscapes familiar to locals (“I’m sleepin’ in the Graveyard Fields”), speak to the existential frustrations of a world in which possibilities can truly feel endless (“at least I got weed got women got time … but I still can’t make up my mind”), and embody the rich irony of life itself (“I’m always lookin’ funeral fresh”). Musashi’s chill lyrics and poetic, rhythmic structures hint at the deep thoughtfulness that goes into his songwriting. All of the work that he puts in comes across as sheer ease during his performances, though, as he moves through lyrics, beats, and cadences without even breaking a sweat.
The first full-length set of the evening belonged to Asheville locals Vinyl Time Travelers (DJs Kutzu, Appaloosa, and Stallings). This highly-talented trio performed a high-energy set that hearkened back to the olden days of analog technology through virtuosic record scratching. It was amazing to see three people create music that came together so fluidly, emerging out of each individual’s performance to coalesce into the flow of the larger group dynamic. Starting off with slow, grooving beats, the music quickly picked up into higher-intensity sounds. The music veered from sweeping to scratchy and unfinished and every place in between. Scratching added texture over smooth beats, and distorted vocal samples mixed with other high-pitched blips that dropped into heavy, thudding bass. The highlight of the set came when DJ Kutzu, who wore a charmingly kitschy mini-Yoda backpack throughout the evening, took out a pair of chopsticks and used them to scratch. It was a moment that seemed equally rehearsed and improvisational and showcased the skill of these performers, who effortlessly infuse older technologies with new and unstoppable energy.
Aligning Minds took the stage next, performing their most energetic and exciting set yet. This performance brought both drummer Matthias Sayour and tribal belly dancer Kristi Wrolstad (in a gorgeous feathered outfit) to the stage as Mike Folk created his signature immersive beats. Waveforms included a performance from Aligning Minds each week, but this set felt like it included a lot of new material. Even if this wasn’t actually the case, it goes to show how Aligning Minds can bring new energy to their shows time and again, even after over a month of stellar performances. This set felt a little more upbeat and faster than some of the other weeks’, bringing in more traditional dance beats that pulled explicitly from techno and drum ‘n’ bass. Mike, Matthias, and Kristi were joined by DJ Stallings from Vinyl Time Travelers partway through the set, and Kutsu, Appaloosa, and Musashi gathered onstage to watch what unfolded. It felt like the perfect culmination of what has been a remarkable series as Aligning Minds’ goal of bringing musicians and producers from across the country became literally embodied on stage.
Jeremy Ellis performed next and absolutely lived up to the hype. The famed finger-drummer was in top form, alternating between creating an impossible number of sounds and rhythms at once and cracking jokes and egging on the audience. His first song opened with the theme from Rocky, which he used to drive the crowd wild with a remarkable degree of precision. He moved quickly into Star Trek samples in the next song, showing his deep awareness of how to create beats that will resonate aurally as well as culturally. Ellis comes across as a fascinating oddball, with the crazy hair (and a slight bit of the creep factor) of Woody Allen. Watching him perform was like diving headfirst into the uncanny valley–that area in robotics, prosthetics, and special effects in which the line between the real and unreal, man and machine blur and take on a fascinating and unsettling power. This resulted partially from the incredible speed at which he was moving his fingers, and was heightened by the fact that for much of the set, he didn’t look down at the pads he was so ferociously tearing across. Ellis’s set was at times so complex that it was hard to find a beat, much less stay with it. At some level it was impossible to be fully immersed in the music, but this meant that we could remain fully focused on watching the performance. Ellis, like Musashi, is a consummate showman, but his uniqueness lies in his full embrace of nerd culture and irreverent humor. “May I freak this shit for you?” he asked at one point, inspiring the crowd to go wild. He also waxed poetic about the history of the synthesizer and his love for it, and it was clear that his respect for and knowledge of instrumentation and music theory run deep. Towards the end of his set he asked, without a shred of irony, “Can we hang out together? ‘Cause I want to make this vibe for you.” The answer, resoundingly, was yes.
DJ QBert started his formidable set with the official understatement of the year: “Don’t mind me, I’m just gonna do a little bit of DJing.” His set combined old-school hip hop, deep bass, robotic beats, and industrial sounds with his superhuman abilities as a DJ. QBert is one of the most inspirational and influential beat-makers in dance music. He’s also been in the game for a long time, making beats and scratching since he was 15 and joining up with Mix Master Mike and DJ Apollo in 1990. QBert’s energy was contagious, filtering out to the crowd, which picked up on the dark, danceable beats and did some serious moving. The set was denser and darker than the ones preceding it, bringing a new tone to the evening and grounding us deeply in our bodies after Ellis’s dizzying mental play. Like Ellis, QBert’s fingers moved so quickly as he scratched that watching him was akin to seeing something supernatural. At the heart of DJing is the drive to make something totally new and innovative out of pre-existing material fused with the latest in technological and imaginative achievement, and DJ QBert’s set was the ultimate testament to this. Watching him perform felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was an opportunity to see both the foundations and future of dance music.
Perhaps inevitably, the night ended in an epic battle between DJ QBert and Jeremy Ellis, who returned to the stage and challenged QBert to a duel of mind-blowing musical proportions. Although I suspect they may have planned to fight it out (good-naturedly) beforehand, the effect was nothing less than spellbinding. It was a rare opportunity to see two incredible musicians match each other in skill level and energy. It was also the best imaginable end to Waveforms 2.0. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long before Mike and Aligning Minds lead us into another brave new world of musical possibilities.