Cut Chemist + DJ Shadow: Hard Sell @ Hollywood Bowl, 6/24/07

It’s been a long, strange journey.

I’ve been following the 7″ trail left by DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist for over seven years now[1]. Brainfreeze was enough of a phenomenon to begin with but it’s hard to imagine that some 8 years after that first show at Club 550 in S.F., Cut and Shadow would bring the same concept to the Hollywood Bowl, only this time, in front of a crowd of at least 12,000, under a perfect Los Angeles June night sky. When they first took stage, it was staggering to think about that evolution. It’s not like the two haven’t played big venues before but if you’ve never been to the Bowl, the sheer size of it is humbling and again, we’re talking about a performance centered around playing 45s.


This thought obviously crossed their minds too since the Hard Sell show opened with a short, humorous “instructional video” as to what people were about to witness during the evening, effectively, “yes, we’re playing records” but why such an endeavor would be artistically and musically worthwhile of the Bowl’s attention. For DJ-educated types, such an explanation was unnecessary but for those who think, “wait, they still press vinyl?” such an intro was likely quite useful in setting the stage for what was about to happen.

But here’s the thing: even for those who cling tightly to their original copies of Brainfreeze and Product Placement, it was clear early on that this was NOT going to be a predictable part tres in that series. Unlike the previous two performances, built specifically around funk 45s, Hard Sell was far more ambitious and eclectic. Now the two DJs split eight turntables between them plus effects processors which allowed them new options in creating and sustaining tones and loops. It was an entirely different kind of performance, less oriented on playing dozens of obscure records in a row and more about building a series of conceptual sets – all made using records, but less about the actual records and more about what one could make with them.

That’s why it’s a little pointless to run down the playlist for you – it’s hard to communicate the overall feel of the night by noting, “oh yeah, and at one point, they went from “Passin’ Me By” to “Made U Look”” since that snippet can’t represent the whole. Suffice to say though, there were a few sets that were built around records – i.e. identifiable pieces of music – but there were just as many that involved long passages of sound interspersed by drums or scratching, but were more like pieces of musical composition (John Cage meets David Axelrod meets Grandwizard Theodore…). In that respect, Hard Sell seemed closer to DJ Shadow’s Private Press shows than what I’ve seen of Cut Chemist in the past but then again, Cut’s recent works have become more compositional and conceptual as well.

So there were a variety of different moments (two of which I discuss in greater detail below), including a short segment of “world percussion” where African drums became blended in with a samba line or these long, almost prog rock-like passages of noise and tone. In the background, a VJ executed a compelling set of background videos and images in synch with the music’s rhythms and themes (looks like the same team that worked on Shadow’s shows), including a Transformer Jukebox that shoots 7″s (that I’m guessing is not in the upcoming Michael Bay adaptation).

But let’s get to the point: Creative? Definitely. Experimental? No doubt. Entertaining? Well…ear of the beholder. Personally, I liked it. I thought the attempt to transcend the themes of Brainfreeze and Product Placement was interesting and daring, I liked the attempt at simply doing “more” with the concept of playing 7″s. But I also think it was fair to say that the overall performance was significantly less coherent and cohesive. It felt more like a scattered set of pieces that hinted at a larger picture but it wasn’t clear what that image was meant to be. And maybe that was the whole point but no doubt, folks expecting another session full of funky 45s were left wondering, “wait, what was that?” And maybe that was part of the point too.

By the way, closing the evening was Kim Fowley. Crazy random. I met him at the afterparty and he’s a trip. But more on that another time.

One last thing: there were moments where the sets had small glitches – drums doubling up, missed cues – and I actually liked seeing/hearing those, not only because it reminded you “this is live” but it’s suggestive of how improvisational and challenging this new set is and frankly, I doubt most in the audience caught them anyways. I do know Shadow was chuckling about it during the afterparty and assuming him and Cut take this on the road (which I think they are), I imagine these will all get ironed out in due time.

Two personal highlights from the show:

The opening set was, from what I could tell, an attempt to speak to the event itself: a summer time concert at the Hollywood Bowl, and what spilled forth was what could be best described as an homage to the days of jukebox joints, East L.A. sweet soul and oldies AM radio. It had some strange moments, including some electro cover of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock Tonight” as well as – I kid you not – another eccentric cover of “Eye of the Tiger” but then they dropped the Flamingos’ great romantic ballad, “I Only Have Eyes For You”, complete with spinning disco balls when the verse, “are the stars out tonight?” came on.

The next song was this:

Eddie Holman and the Larks: This Can’t Be True
From 7″ (Parkway, 1965). Also on This Can’t Be True.

Sure, Holman wasn’t from L.A. and didn’t record his single there but this is some straight, East L.A., Impalaville sweet soul. I. Love. This. Song. And it really captured the moment of where everyone was – relaxing in the cool summer air of Hollywood.

However, it didn’t give any clues as to what would happen next and that would be par for the course for the evening. The next set was more hip-hop focused, including drops of “Passin’ Me By,” “Made U Look,” “Dwyck” and then…they went into a short mini-set of original De La Soul breaks from the 3 Ft. High and Rising era. My mind was blown for a few reasons, including, 1) this was such “my sh–” and 2) I would have been impressed if even 5% of the crowd had a clue what was going on. Seriously, when they were re-creating “Plug Tunin,” who would have followed?

The moment I was waiting for – and which was delivered – was this song:

Maggie Thrett: Soupy
From 7″ (Dyno Voice, 1965). Also on The Label That Had to Happen.

For those old enough to even remember “Jenifa,” this is the 45 that powered the main loop. I could swear this is a variation on Jr. Walker and the All-Stars’ “Shotgun” but regardless, it’s a great mid-60s cooker that makes me hungry for more songs in this vein. (Thanks to Jared at Big City for putting me onto this).

As for whether Hard Sell will make it onto CD/DVD…my guess (and this is purely a guess) is “yes” though I’d be curious to hear how this plays as purely recorded performance. As for whether or not this is the last chapter in the Cut/Shadow 7″ Saga? We’ll have to see how that plays out later.

Just for the sake of cataloging: I missed the very first show in San Francisco where Brainfreeze was introduced but I was on-hand to see the last show on the tour, at the El Rey in Los Angeles, having written a preview of it for the LA Weekly (this is still one of my favorite pieces I ever wrote). I also did coverage on Product Placement for the first issue of Waxpoetics and if that wasn’t enough, I also interviewed the two DJs for the DVD version of Freeze.