All words: Jeb Gavin
(photo courtesy of Death & Taxes)
The early show at the U Street Music Hall this past Saturday night felt as much like a history lesson on a niche form of electronic music as it was a concert. Regardless of the identity or orientation of the members of Light Asylum and opener Daughn Gibson, the music spoke of dark clubs, not sinister, but historically risqué due to the race, proclivities, or sexual orientation of the participants.
First up was Daughn Gibson. His sonorous baritone run through a low key echo effect was layered over his instrumentalist producer’s vaguely country-sounding orchestral synths gave the impression of sort of laconic murder ballads, as though Stephin Merritt were singing the darkest of Nick Cave songs in an illicit cowboy-themed cabaret. Standing there on the mostly empty dance floor, the dark, cold room in stark contrast to the humidity and sunlight still outside, you could easily imagine listening to the core of the soundtrack for a Twin Peaks reboot.
After a short break and some serious effort setting up the downright epic array of drum pads, samplers and keyboards necessary, Light Asylum took the small stage, and then continued to tinker with their equipment and banter until they were ready to play. Singer Shannon Funchess and producer/instrumentalist Bruno Coviello are often described as darkwave, a sort of electronic goth sound. Live, though, it sounded more like the evolution of ball society techno.
For those who’ve never seen Paris Is Burning, I would likely do it a disservice trying to describe ball society, though from what I gather, it was a glamorous subset of underground gay culture in New York and DC starting in the 1960s onward, peaking in the mid to late 1980s. Techno folded seamlessly into other dance music integral to the scene. Light Asylum’s sound is reminiscent, both in sound and temperament, to the sense of isolation born of being an outsider finally discovering community. This emotion seems essential to the soundtrack of society houses, a stilted but danceable beat underpinning soaring pseudo-R&B vocals.
Much as I’d like to continue pontificating about the nature of a society to which I’ve never belonged, it just doesn’t serve to best explain how comforted I felt listening to what would otherwise be sort of frightening and dry electronic music, shot through with soul and hope. However weird it may be to think it, this music exists and is still being made is in part due to the acceptance of techno music (and not to draw unnecessary parallels, gay culture). Its continued existence is at least in part owed to hearing techno beats on nearly every top 40 pop, R&B, and rap song on the chart. If you can hear ghosts voguing on the dance floors of the frattiest of bars in Bethesda or Georgetown, it’s an indicator electronic music with emotional depth and honesty is still being made somewhere, and it will likely show up at U Hall eventually.