Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Susan J. Weiand
Yuri's Night Bay Area 2008 :: 04.12.08 :: NASA/Ames Research Center :: Mountain View, CA
A flashing sign at the gate announced we were entering a zone where ALL Federal laws would be enforced. It's a fairly off-putting greeting but ultimately things proved a lot cheerier inside the expansive NASA/Ames Complex. The scale of the place is intimidating with cloud scraping hangars and concrete blocks rising out of a landscape that looks like an abandoned set from Gomer Pyle - dilapidated shacks and metal tanks lining avenues dotted by a ghostly, abandoned McDonald's franchise and boarded up gas pumps. Once a primary West Coast military hub, Moffett Field no longer has the budget to gussy things up but that hardly mattered to the small army of glitter children that descended on the facility for Yuri's Night Bay Area 2008, a peculiar, lively gathering of quasi-futuristic music and very forward thinking science.
Yuri's Night :: 04.12 :: Moffett, CA
The musical attractions included numerous top flight DJs, several fine emerging dance bands, Particle, Amon Tobin and the debut outing by Telstar, a new improvised instrumental project featuring Phil Lesh (bass, MIDI triggers), Steve Molitz (keyboards), John Molo (drums) and previously unannounced guest trumpeter Willie Waldman. The Main Stage hosted most of the live acts and the intricately decorated Annex Stage - a marvel of hypnotic lights and Klingon architecture – housed the nonstop DJ spinning in a near constant smoke machine haze. The trip energy pouring out of the Annex, even as early as late afternoon, was sticky, palpable and undeniable. Despite this being a bonafide science symposium, there were many who skipped the lectures (yes, honest to god lectures!) and engaged in a little healthy "self-education" on the seething, sighing concrete dance floor.
Yuri's Night is a clamorous environment, full of bleeps, strobe flashes and all manner of whirring distractions. After you walked beneath a towering metal spider with a slow rotating red eye at the gate you encountered a curious mix of urban pagans, lollipop ravers, Oxford shirt tech geeks, gaggles of Star Trek and X-Files fans and not a few aging hippies. It's fair to say these groups don't party together very often and sometimes the sheer incongruity of it made folks awkward like some surreal junior high social gone askew. While music pumped from various corners, you also had the option of listening to very smart people talk about moving goods & humanity in "small packet" mass transit systems or (and this is no joke) the properties of functionalized carbon nanotube based gas sensors. Satellites beamed down images of the Earth and the Moon and aerial performers and stunt jets twirled over our heads. If Cirque de Soleil ran M.I.T. it might look a lot like this.
Tipper :: Yuri's Night :: 04.12
Tipper worked the turntables near sunset in the Annex in a thick, deliberate way, the percussion hitting us like cannon fired cinderblocks or bricks rebounding off a trampoline. Video accompaniment in real time added to the sweeping atmosphere that only intensified as the night grew darker. Jugglers split the air as Tipper laid into a cowbell clank with a Brazilian undercurrent. Over on the Main Stage, Sweet Snacks did Devo and Afrika Bambaataa proud with a deliciously raw, simple electro swing with chants like "Homo Sapiens got it/ Work your body with Illuminati" and "This is not a holy war/ Dance you fools!" The clean room suits, cute little black dress on their lead singer and general post-modern effervescence was kinda intoxicating.
Boston's Freezepop utilized a bang-up female vocalist with chrome ice pipes (Liz Enthusiasm) and two keytarists (The Duke of Pannekoeken and The Other Sean T. Drinkwater) that knew their way around an 808. Between the machined percussion and their Blondie meets Berlin meets Gary Numan & Tubeway Army vibe, Freezepop oozed retro charm with enough character of their own to spark interest.
Freezepop :: Yuri's Night :: 04.12
One drag at the event were the nigh endless food and drink lines, which remained 20-30 people or more deep most of the time. The organizers had grossly underestimated the crowd's appetite for consumption and there was more than a little grousing about the challenge of getting even a simple bottle of water. To distract yourself from your grumbling tummy you could hop on a pedal powered Karaoke machine or engage in Cyclecide, a pair of bicycle powered carnival rides where half the folks worked their legs while the other half whirled around in carny chairs. The harder they pumped, the wilder the spin, and the giggles and winded laughter after each session testified that most got a kick out of this attraction.
But, atmosphere aside, there is the matter of a new Phil Lesh project. With only a few hundred people gathered around for Telstar's first public airing it was like seeing Lesh at a county fair. Weird, man. Waldman called things to order with a mutated horn blast that recalled the effects-twisted sound of Eno creative foil Jon Hassell and early '70s Miles Davis, happy flashbacks that continued throughout their set. It didn't take long to figure out this was pure space rock with dollops of jazz-fusion and '70s funk stirred in for flavor. Behind them, solar systems moved and above a giant's hand worked bizarre Etch-A-Sketch patterns. I was possessed by the urge to watch Cosmos reruns. Listening to Molitz's sick arsenal of sounds under clear skies I suddenly missed Carl Sagan, though I never actually knew the man.
Lesh snapped me out of it with a thumb whack worthy of Jaco Pastorius or George Porter Jr., Phil finding his inner fusion god and letting him out into the light. While not especially deep, this completely improvised music full of monumental builds and solid rhythmic foundations was satisfying, if you didn't dig too much past the surface. Possessed of a laidback cool, even when they poured on heat – notably Molo's whirling Shiva arms of steel – it was like eavesdropping on a comfortable conversation between cunning linguists. So skilled was this quartet that even the few missteps and fumbled cues hardly took away from their playful exploration in a space built large enough to hold their skyward ramblings. Next to colossal buildings and antique parked aircraft, one felt slightly freed from the smallness of things in 2008. So, when a flying saucer landed behind them on the screen and Molitz unearthed his funky Herbie Hancock streak, it was easy to let go and rise above the strip mall culture outside the gates while they noodled pleasantly.
Phil Lesh :: Yuri's Night :: 04.12
Over at the rave cave, Amon Tobin was easing into a steady rumble, perhaps the landing gear of that UFO touching down nearby, the room awash in exhaust and curious, alien odors. A dubby hip-hop thump fueled some primo poppin' & lockin' just outside the hangar door. With a single breath's pause, Tobin unleashed a drum 'n' bass electrical storm that exploded in pockets around the floor, turning white jumpsuit wearing b-boys into slow falling zombies that jerked and sputtered away at a turtle's clip. What Amon Tobin crafted, sans words, was a dark, absorbing narrative as compelling as any vocal music I've heard. The emotional highs and lows were intense, and the complexity and challenging nature of what he did was a touch risky with an audience expecting to move. That he ground away and probed for something more substantive than just another set atop his DJ pyramid was impressive as hell.
My last taste of music before sleep jumped me was Particle with guest guitarist Brian Jordan (KDTU, Blusirkut). Opening with a fast drum break and quickly jettisoning the patient builds of Telstar, the band dug in, hard bass pawing us like an overanxious teenage date and Jordan working the outer edges of the thrust like a blue flame. They've been described as "space porn" a time or two, and that hip-grinding feel remained, a fine wordless soundtrack to dirty sex and bloodied nostril tomfoolery. While they still sometimes reminded me of the Dr. Who soundtrack dialed up a few RPMs, Particle is a fine bit of party rave cheese played by guys who know what they're doing with their instruments. Like much of the music at Yuri's Night, it might not have penetrated much but it got the job done and fit the overall high tech carnival atmosphere well. If we had to put up with the occasional New Age introducer telling us, "Don't forget when you're dancing to dance the energy into the Earth. Dance in newness, freshness," well, it was nice to be around so many creative, switched-on folks gathered for a brighter future or maybe just an enjoyable night under the stars.
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