Hercules & Love Affair @ The Metro

Photos by Ivan Gaytan

Unlike our rock fan peers, dance music enthusiasts are often unaccustomed to experiencing our favorite artists as live acts. And while laptops, midi controllers and Ableton now allow producers to stitch together “live PAs” with double clicks and knob twists, the experience is still closer to a DJ selecting and mixing records together than your average rock concert. Hercules & Love Affair is one of the few groups to straddle the divide between the endless beats of a club gig and the sensory impact of a full band’s live performance. Chicago has patiently waited for HALA to make its way to the Midwest while their hometown NYC and Europe received most of their attention; and this past Friday our number was finally up to experience the spectacle in person.

The Metro was crowded but far from sold out for HALA’s debut show (if you discount head producer, Andy Butler’s DJ slot during the Hideout Block Party), so there was ample room to dance rather than simply being bounced from side to side as part of the heaving mass of people. Within moments of taking the stage, Butler and vocalists Nomi Ruiz and Kim Ann Foxman declared their love for all things Chicago house, with Derrick Carter and Marshall Jefferson getting specific shout outs in the blitz of affection. That out of the way, the eight-piece group — a trumpeter, trombonist, drummer, bassist, Butler and another guy behind racks of synthesizers, and the aforementioned vocalists — launched into their first tune with near mechanical precision.

Months of constant touring had obviously toned the group into a disciplined force which followed a carefully orchestrated routine that shifted from tune to tune on a dime and didn’t stop until nearly 50 minutes later. Up against expectations set out for DJs who don’t need to catch their breaths, HALA powered through with seasoned resolve. Unfortunately that came at the cost of sacrificing some spontaneity and human interaction that set concerts apart; to her credit, Nomi did her best to rile up the audience with provocative dancing and calls to clap and chant along.

But all their focus also meant a killer performance of full-bodied sounds even the Metro’s often hapless sound guys couldn’t muddle too badly (although they tried, with the drum kit often receded far back in the mix). Nailed in place by the drummer’s strict time-keeping and bouncing on the back of their bassist’s popping funk syncopations and Butler’s chattering synth programming, the group filled the air with balmy nu disco meets house melodies. The horn players were absolutely stellar in tone and accuracy, lending the tunes a much needed punch and providing the insistent bassist with a sharp foil to play against. Nomi Ruiz, a perfectly sculpted transsexual with a lovely set of bassey alto pipes, is well suited to fill in for Antony Hegarty (whose appropriately histrionic vocals adorn the album). She and Kim Ann Foxman make for great front women, alternately shimmying and bouncing around with obvious (if trained) enjoyment. Somewhat hidden by their instruments, Butler and the other synth player had to fight for their spot in the crowded mix, but seemed to be programming their 808s and 909s (I believe) before our eyes and dropping in the occasional piano chords for added sparkle.

With a short discography to draw upon, HALA cruised through almost the entirety of their debut album in the first 50 minutes. As one might expect, their mega hit “Blind” was transcendent and expertly executed. A number of tunes were liberally adapted for the stage in ways that left them at first somewhat unrecognizable. Their current single, “You Belong,” is actually a fairly sparse song dominated by drum programming on record, and suddenly this fleshed out disco pop song that first turned the corner of recognition during the chorus emerged in its place. The crowd didn’t seem to mind much and kept moving until the band had finished its encore, which came complete with a new and already familiar sounding track.

Overall, it was a great experience seeing and hearing Andy Butler and his merry band of disco-teers bringing Hercules & Love Affair to life, coming face to face with dance music as it was created before me. I’ve become accustomed to all but ignoring the people who crank out the music, and this was a breath of fresh, shared air reminding me that disco and house can be both an engaging spectacle and a means for shaking it. Perhaps it’s just my rock roots showing through, but I hope more dance musicians strive for staging a real performance as it gets easier to do the opposite.

ebenoit  on October 20, 2008 at 6:40 AM

i think it’s sad that everyone has grown so unaccustomed to seeing electronic music live in some sort of band configuration… i miss the days of depeche, soft cell, human league, omd, 242, etc. performing with racks of equipment. it carried on at least into the mid nineties with 808 state performed with racks of equipment and dancer, the orb was a huge event, orbital was always genius, psychick warriors of gaia, etc. it seemed to go all a bit too laptop/dj in the late 90’s… outside of the warp stable like autechre, boards of canada, plaid, etc. and for the record, i have nothing against the laptop performance; in fact i think carsten nicolai is one of the more commanding presences in that context, but it became an easy option for a lot of performers i feel. even though all those reasons i am aware of, it still would be nice to see a bit more ‘performance’ and a lot less ‘smile and pose’. though i wouldn’t say i was the biggest fan of hala, it is great to see electronic dance artists bringing back elaborate shows to the masses, hopefully they will remind other electronic artists that yes, they can perform shows and not just dj or mouse-click all the time.

Jason Rule (harpomarx42)  on October 20, 2008 at 7:57 AM

I agree. I’m glad to see people like Tobias, DBX, Half Hawaii, Galoppereinde Zuversicht using an all-hardware setup. Yes, laptops can be a lot more versatile (look at Cobblestone Jazz) but let’s make performers work for their money! 😛

Tim Stephans  on October 20, 2008 at 10:28 AM

This show was fantastic. One of the best I’ve been to all year. I could have used another 100 or so people there, but that’s my only complaint.

hutlock  on October 20, 2008 at 11:57 AM

Yes, amen to Eric. Having grown up seeing all those acts he listed (808 State! New Order! Depeche Mode!), I really stopped going to gigs for the most part when this transition happened (well, and the fact that I’m in Cleveland and no one ever comes here helped). I hope more acts take the lead and go with an actual performance.

james kartsaklis  on October 20, 2008 at 12:10 PM

i don’t know that i’m into performance for dance music groups, but i do wish more experimental supergroups (like this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6vb3eWsemM) would record/tour/play one off shows. performance, to me, is more enjoyable in the realm of headphone/home listening music… with dance music, the relative anonymity / decentralized focus of the dj booth is more appealing.

bigbernardo  on October 20, 2008 at 2:20 PM

I’ve always felt the more movement on stage the more exciting. Honestly the shift towards laptops really has been quite sad…I remember the days fondly when going to see a live act meant actual use of various musical equipment. I also remember my first techno/house nights when you would see DJs running around the booth, digging through crates and manically moving their arms all over the decks, mixer and effects…Nowadays you’ll go see a ‘live’ and it’ll be some pale dude in a deep v-neck staring at his macbook and flipping switches on his controller…Not quite the same impact sadly.


Saturday Night Fever! « MiS | Moving in Stereo  on February 21, 2009 at 8:02 PM

[…] 21 minute live set from the entourage of beat makers. I regret to this day deciding to not attend their show last year at the Metro. After viewing their rooftop throw down, I just kicked myself again. But this time, even harder. […]

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