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By Jeb Gavin

There was no un-fascinating aspect to the Simian Mobile Disco concert at the U Street Music Hall. And yet, one could be forgiven for finding the show a little slow, given it was two men sitting behind banks of patch boards, while the soundtrack in their brain slowly developed on stage.

The tour, in support of their latest album Whorl, seeks to recreate the album live on stage each night, and yet not actually recreated. As the duo mentioned in an interview prior to the show, “The whole point of the new set up is to keep it as live as possible, so experimentation and mistakes are allowed and encouraged.” The project seeks to narrow the gap between artifice and artifact, such that there’s no difference between the live performance and the creation of the album itself. Minor problem though: unless you’re intimately familiar with the album there’s no way of determining the beauty of the mistakes being created live, comparing the wild deviations and uniquities of two people playing live in front of a crowd only half interested in an intellectual exercise.

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That said, the live performance can be riveting. James Ford and Jas Shaw look like engineering professors conducting a wonderful experiment in front of folks only partially aware of the experiment itself. Shaw in particular bounces in his seat in front of his system as though his mind spools out the opportunity of every note played, just waiting for the chance to unleash fascinating dissonance in every which way. Ford is more focused, looking not unlike old-time NASA system techs waiting in Houston to see what of the Apollo program after launch.

The visuals match the music in terms of minimalism. Two oscilloscopes superimposed on one another projected behind the scientists, occasionally syncing to the beat. Despite the minimal sights and sound, the show never felt sparse. The album itself has a lushness that sneaks up on you, as though you’re first listening to wandering blips and SONAR static, and all the sudden music bursts forth cresting above the surface of consciousness before dipping back below your threshold of awareness.

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The crowd, which seemed keen on dancing or chatting or generally behaving as though they were at any other electro or house show was mostly quiet from the start of the performance. This wasn’t anything particularly brand new, eschewing computers and trying to recreate a recording live, but the studiousness, the intensity felt refreshing.

For a single late night, U Hall became a laboratory. The question is, was the audience an audience, or the test subjects? Were we observers or the experiment itself- because recreating an album perfectly live is one thing, but you can never experience an album the same way twice?

Photos from Simian Mobile Disco at Rock & Roll Hotel.

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