There was a definite buzz in the air Tuesday night in New York's Central Park as Bristol, England, drum & bass superforce Roni Size and his crew, Reprazent, headlined a free concert, the final of the SummerStage 2000 series.
Before the show started, it seemed like all of Central Park might not be big enough to contain the mass of fans who turned out for the group's first U.S. appearance to showcase material from its highly anticipated sophomore album, In the Mode, due Oct. 24.
While Anoushka Shankar was showing off the subtle, transcendent sitar skills passed down from her father, legend Ravi Shankar, people were being turned away in droves at the entrance to the jam-packed show.
Following Shankar's six-person set, a surprise set by local Anglo-Indian DJ Siraiki and Asian Dub Foundation guitarist Chandrasonic elevated anticipation for Reprazent's set to a fever pitch. The pair mixed hard, speedy jungle beats with layers of fiery guitar sounds and Asian underground rhythms in a brief but intoxicating sonic display.
Then came Reprazent. As Size, MC Dynamite, singer Onallee, DJ/programmers Suv, Krust and Die, bassist Si John and drummer Rob Merrill took the stage, the thousands-strong crowd went berserk.
"Reprazent!" MC Dynamite would shout later on. "We're back!"
Looking every bit like a band from the future, Size and the other three programmers stood on two tiers of risers behind the vocalists, each manning a setup of keyboards and computers while bobbing his head in sync to the jazzy rolling rhythms.
Songs drawn from the band's 1997 debut, New Forms, now considered a drum & bass classic, drew the biggest response from the tightly packed fans, who devolved into a mass of raised arms, swinging hips and thrashing heads at the opening guitar strains of "Brown Paper Bag" (RealAudio excerpt), the group's signature track.
Although the songs from In the Mode didn't create as much commotion, they certainly whetted appetites for the new album.
"Who Told You," the album's lead single (scheduled for a September release), was prefaced by a warning to the crowd from MC Dynamite that a different style of groove was on tap. Marked by hardcore hip-hop vocals with a sharp, choppy delivery, the song indeed marks a new direction for the group's heavily jazz-influenced sound.
But considering that In the Mode features collaborations from Method Man, Rahzel and Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha, perhaps a harder hip-hop flavor wasn't so surprising.
As a live band, Reprazent worked like complex machinery, powered by the programmer quartet, given a human face by the hype tandem of MC Dynamite and Onallee and lubricated by John's frantic, funk-laden bass.
"The last time we toured, there were a few things we had to tighten up," Size said recently. "We worked on the arrangements and drums and just made sure everybody was in tune with each other. Now, everyone has their role. All the breaks from the record are emphasized with snares and kicks. I'm playing all the digital fills. Krust plays the strings. Suv plays all the effects. Dynamite and Onallee back each other up and give each other space."
The evening's only down note came when an overly enthusiastic fan made his way to the stage, dancing around before diving headfirst back into the crowd. Because the area directly in front of the stage was full of chairs and the dancing crowd wasn't expecting stage-diving antics, MC Dynamite had to stop the show to make sure no one was seriously hurt before berating the fan for his irresponsible behavior.
Contrary to expectations raised by a history of surprise appearances at SummerStage shows, none of In the Mode's guest stars showed up onstage. It didn't seem to matter much to the enraptured fans, however, who remained on their feet, moving to the rhythm until the last beat. (Sonicnet.com is a co-sponsor of the SummerStage series.)