NEW YORK -- Dancing frenetically, like some Ecstasy-addled aerobics
instructor, Karl Hyde was anything but the picture of your average, low-key
electronica frontman Wednesday night.
But Underworld, who launched a U.S. tour the night before, are hardly your
average electronica group. While others, including Orbital or the Chemical
Brothers, rely almost entirely on their music, Underworld, whose music is
multilayered and sensual, know also how to work a crowd. And that's what they
did Wednesday at the Hammerstein Ballroom.
The trio's entrance, following a crisp DJ set by Detroit's Richie Hawtin, was
unassuming enough. The show began with a simple, echoed keyboard riff -- the
aural equivalent of throwing a pat of butter in the frying pan to begin a
sauté. There were a good two minutes of this anticipatory ringing before
any layers of sound were added.
The first song eventually revealed itself to be the epic "Dark & Long," from
Underworld's 1994 debut album, Dubnobasswithmyheadman. The
sellout crowd of 3,300 proved as animated as the band. With no prodding from
the trio -- Hyde, programmer Rick Smith and DJ Darren Emerson -- glowstick-
wearing fans spontaneously responded, gesticulating wildly to the thundering
bass and shimmering keyboards.
Hyde, Underworld's main interface with fans, is their chief entertainment
weapon. During the second song, the new single "Push Upstairs"
(RealAudio excerpt), he launched into an aerobic dance while singing at breakneck speed over a huge, house-
like track. Wearing headphones and a sweat-soaked gray T-shirt, he radiated
He wasn't the only visual aid Underworld offered, though. Hyde and Smith have
day jobs in England running an advertising and graphic-design firm, Tomato.
Graham Wood, Andy Bramler and a host of other Tomato mates provided
visuals that complemented Underworld's chic sound.
Four giant screens stood above and behind the stage. Underworld performed
live video mixdowns to go along with their live audio mixdowns; the video
graphics mixed live camera work with the minimal, distorted text that is Tomato's
"Push Upstairs" is from Underworld's third full-length album, Beaucoup
Fish, released a week before the show. In a surprising move, they played
only three more songs from it, concentrating instead on older material.
Their rendition of "Jumbo," from Beaucoup Fish, midway through the set
perhaps offered an explanation: A minute into the track, all sound cut out and
confusion reigned onstage as Smith and Emerson held a quick meeting over
their computers and sequencers. Eventually, Smith got the song up and running
again as Hyde offered apologies with a good-natured "It's a live show after all."
It was live. Few electronica bands try as hard as Underworld do to make
every show different. The segues between songs often became songs
themselves. Smith and Emerson appeared in control of their craft as they
continually tweaked and refined each song on the fly. Nowhere was this more
evident than on the rolling, percussive "Pearl's Girl," from Second Toughest
in the Infants (1996).
But the lads conceded to the bottom line and offered up a straight rendition of
the song that made their name in the United States. "Born Slippy" (RealAudio
excerpt), their anthem from the "Trainspotting" soundtrack, received --
predictably enough -- the most enthusiastic response of the night.
Underworld closed the varied set with a new-world anthem, the pulsing disco
number "King of Snake."
"I thought they went down excellent," 21-year-old Scottish expatriate Jonathan
Hough said. "I've seen them before in the UK, and this was better than any
show I've seen."