When I saw that Washington, DC-based DJs Thievery Corporation, were swinging through San Francisco, I knew I was going. What I didn't know was what to expect. In the past year or two the buzz around Thievery has been spreading, leaking into virtually all pockets of music fans. And for good reason. Their studio efforts, put out on Eighteenth Street Lounge Music, which is a phenomenal record label, have more or less single handedly turned me onto an entire new genre of music. This is not to say that they leave the endless amounts of other collaborations in this electronic, downtempo world behind. But their easy accessibility and smooth sounds have opened doors for many.

Rob Garza and Eric Hilton met at Eighteenth Street Lounge, the swanky DC club, in May 1995. They were introduced by a mutual friend and proceeded to discuss their admiration for the work of Antonio Carlos Jobim and the '60s bossa sound. Weeks later, in a home studio, they began to work on the music that would launch Thievery Corporation. After several early 12" singles, Thievery Corporation released Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi on ESL Music. That record is already considered by most to be a classic of the new electronic era.

From there this dynamic duo proceeded to create several amazing albums that, even after heavy rotation over the speakers, find their way into the sound system, something that is quite rare in my musical world. Each piece is different, yet tied together by the slick beats, pressure drop, light airy vocals, and exquisite production quality. You really can't go wrong, whether you're listening to Abductions & Reconstructions containing wonderful remixes of David Byrne, Baaba Maal, Slide Five and Black Uhuru, to name just a few. Or perhaps your in the mood for the mellower, Mirror Conspiracy which revolves around Garza and Hilton's song production, and creation, as opposed to remixes.

I could go on and on about the love I have for Thievery (this really isn't news, they've been blowing up as of late), but what is of more interest is their live performance. I had heard such mixed reviews I really didn't have any idea what to expect. I didn't know if I would find two DJs on stage, or maybe behind a booth, a full band, a mix of the two or anything else, for that matter.

Judging from the pictures of the ritzy Eighteenth Street Lounge that Thievery call home, Ruby Skye seemed to be a natural fit for this evening of music. The high class, somewhat snooty club is gorgeous, but uptight and much more of a scene than I was used to. But on the other hand, I expected it, and it's nice to play dress up and shmooze with the other half once in a while.

The place was packed, and I walked in at the very end of Nicole Conte's performance, and for all intensive purposes missed his set. After that, Blue States came on, a live band performing fairly standard music, nothing special, some rhythm and acoustic guitar, female vocals, it really left no impression.

Then the beats start dropping, and the laser lights sharpened: enter Thievery Corporation. The set-up found Garza and Hilton back center, each with turntables (I couldn't really tell if they each had one or each had two), a drum machine, two percussionists, a sitar player and various vocal leaders. The music was very tight, orchestrated well, and extremely similar to what has been ingrained into my unconscious by repetitious listening of Thievery's discography. They played several songs, mostly from Thievery Hi-Fi and The Mirror Conspiracy with a focus on some beautiful vocal work by two different women, and an MC duo led by the gritty, dubbed out rasps of Desmond Williams. The music was performed very well, with a good stage presence, and moderate energy being funneled into the crowd. At times it was tough to really tell what sounds were pre-programmed, and what was being made on the spot, the percussionists seemed to be adding high-lights to the drum machine, and decks, and the sitar was audible and wonderful, but not all that impressive in its use, especially if you're familiar with some of the greats. But in defense of the sitar player, he played his part, creating the ominous tripped out sound that only the sitar can make. As far as the live performance went I was most impressed with the vocal work, which in and of itself is odd for me, not being much of a vocal man. But when the voice is used in this context, simply as a sound, creating harmony, not singing words, it becomes another instrument, not a tool for describing heartbreak.

As I indicated, most of what I heard was taken right off the CDs and wax I have come to love, giving me the impression that this was exactly how they made the albums. One step outside of this familiar song selection was the old school reggae/dance hall track "Ring The Alarm," by Tenor Saw (born Clive Bright, in Jamaica), laid over Winston Riley's "Stalag" rhythm. There is a reason they call it dance hall, and when the rhythm drops in and the bass fills out the bottom end, well, the ladies start dancing. The sound makes you think of a sweaty room, full of bumping bodies and grinding grooves. The catchy chorus, "ring the alarm another sound is dying" (with sultry vocal work) is simply great, and Thievery did it justice. I would say that this was the highpoint of the evening for me, both because I love the track and it stimulates many wonderful memories, but also because it was a surprise. Keeping me on my toes is essential for a good night of live music. I only wish that Thievery Corp. would have mixed it up a bit more, maybe expanding on their classics, or pulling out more of these unexpected selections.

Overall it was a really cool experience. I don't think I would rush out and spend another $25 for the second show, but when they swing through town again in a year or so I'll go. With hopes of a new set of course. One thing that you must keep in mind is that the future of Thievery Corporation does not depend on touring, quite the contrary. This tour is more of a promotional tool, not a means of making it. These guys have already made it; they have become the bar that all downtempo electronica is compared to. The show was a good time, nothing mind blowing, but worth checking out.

Perhaps even more important than seeing Thievery Corporation perform is acquiring some of their music. The dubbed-out rhythms, layered over sitars, and floating vocal harmonies are absolutely top-notch. If you're not familiar, you should really do yourself a favor and get on the band wagon.

The Kayceman
JamBase | HeadQuarters
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[Published on: 2/7/02]

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