The Chemical Brothers Live in Austin Music Hall, Austin, Texas, April 22nd 2002, by Ryan Perez
Rounding the corner from Austin's 6th St. it was possible to feel the bass thumping from the Austin Music Hall still 3 blocks away. It was the fifth show on the Chemical Brothers extremely abbreviated North American tour in support of their latest album "Come With Us".
After negotiating the perfunctory security check and the switchback-like gauntlet leading into the main arena of the venue, we were treated to a scene straight out of a Hollywood-scripted warehouse party, circa 1991. Laser lights flashed, smoke swirled, and music pounded. The only thing missing were dancers. The opening DJ., James Holroyd, apparently didn't have a recognizable enough name to move the Austin crowd. Most of highly diverse, mixed-age and surprisingly nearly glow-stick free attendees merely stood gawking or sat on the floor. The words "Who's he?" were fairly audible.
By the look of the stage, it appeared this show was to be different from the Bros.' past outings. A large construction looking like either an oversized bicycle wheel or a tambourine grown to enormous proportions half-obscured the stage. Gone were the 'desks' the duo has used to trigger samples and mix tracks to present their big beats live before, and in their place were banks upon banks of actual keyboards. Predictably, only a few of these were even touched during the course of the show.
The applause was nearly deafening as Mr. Holroyd wound up the cord to his headphones and the house lights went down. Smoke filled the stage and spotlights projected beams from each of its four corners, creating the shape of an "X" on the edge. The circular construction rotated to the back of the stage, revealing itself to be a projection screen on which astral shapes now danced. Warm, electronic pulses washed over the once sedate, now ecstatic crowd while a soulful voice urged the assembled to 'surrender to the void'. Ed Simons and the newly-shorn Tom Rowlands emerged from the darkness, waved to the crowd, and began turning knobs. The thunderous beats and swelling arppegios of "Come With Us" spilled out of the speakers, and it was on.
The set went on to include the crowd pleasing "Music:Response", "Block Rockin' Beats" and snippets of "Leave Home" and "Song to the Siren". The competing aromas of pot smoke and body odor filled the hall. The set reached a fevered pitch as "Out of Control" morphed into a blissful "Star Guitar" and a sea of arms waved in the light from the stage. The Bros. then took a short break and unfortunately lost a momentum that was never quite regained. This was not due to a lack of trying, however. "The Sunshine Underground" introduced the second set and the groove was very nearly re-captured as "Hey Boy, Hey Girl" segued into "The Test" to close the show. The audience then went through the time-honored concert ritual of 'luring' the artist back to the stage for an encore with applause and hooting.
The encore started with the somewhat avant-hard electro-collage of "My Elastic Eye" accompanied by blinding white lights flashing on the down beats. The show concluded with "The Private Psychedelic Reel", after which Tom picked up and tortured an analogue keyboard, a la Trent Reznor. The Bros. then moved to the lip of the stage to show some audience appreciation which seemed genuinely heartfelt.
Presenting electronic music live has always been a tricky proposition. The result can be something very non-musical with a frenetic frontperson trying desperately to distract the audience from the fact no instruments are being played to the dour and austere, problem-filled live shows of The Chemical Brothers' acknowledged forefathers, New Order. The Chems have tried something different. The writhing audience provides its own distraction while the performers play the "man behind the curtain" onstage; it works. The sweat-soaked crowd filing out into the equally steamy Texas night air could tell you that.