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Where were you for the Juan MacLean show?

by Ryan Snyder

You may or may not have heard that the Juan MacLean was playing a free show on Guilford College’s campus last Saturday, since it wasn’t listed on the band’s official tour itinerary in an attempt to keep the crowd small and local. That might have worked a little too well. Actually, you may or may not have even heard of the Juan MacLean. Chances are that the answer is the latter in each case. John MacLean, or Juan MacLean for the current purpose, is a fairly notable electronic musician recently dragged out of his cozy teaching gig and back into music by LCD Soundsystem and DFA Records founder James Murphy.

MacLean was provided with the means to remake his trademark beats into a synthheavy Kraftwerkian and Human League-esque outpouring of ’80s electro-funk and that leads us to where we are now. Despite the fact he had built up a record of no-shows in recent years, he was on in full force at Guilford’s Sternberger Auditorium with tracks from his forthcoming The Future Will Come. If only anyone actually showed up to see it. No musical slouch himself, MacLean brings some real muscle on the road with his touring band. Most notably was Jerry Fuchs, drummer for !!! (Chk Chk Chk). Fuchs was truly outstanding with his minimalistic, yet thoroughly raging style on his small jazz drum kit. He maintained a consistent, thumping beat on each track, a hallmark of great electronica and had the crowd doing the “Untz de Untz” as a tour-crazy friend of mine would call it. Holy Ghost!’s Nick Milhiser was solid on the bass and percussion synthesizer, but didn’t really stand out above Fuch’s controlled thrashing. He did make his name on my personal favorite MacLean track, “Give Me Every Little Thing.” Do yourself a favor and check out the YouTube video for that one. Nancy Whang, vocalist for LCD Soundsystem, rounded out a lineup that might otherwise constitute an all-star collection of their genre’s current musicians. Let’s talk about Nancy Whang for a minute. Despite the wall of incredible sounds produced by the rest of the band, Whang’s voice managed to stand apart as its own separate entity. She possesses the classic house vocal style of greats like Kathy Brown or Julie McKnight, the kind that seems to soar of above the electronic noise to give the audience something more worldly to latch onto. She only gained momentum as the show progressed and the focus moved from MacLean’s own David Byrne-meets-Bootsy Collins-shaded voice to hers. She was especially strong towards the very end on “No Time,” an echoey, reverberating piece that allowed the band to tail off into a downtempo jam as Whang floated the chorus over and over. For all of its outstanding qualities, the performance was amazingly short for a genre so highly dependent upon dance energy. It clocked in at roughly 50 minutes and even that may be a little too generous. As a veteran of bands such as the Disco Biscuits and Sound Tribe Sector 9, I’ve seen instrumental dance/electronic shows run as long as six hours and the audience stay with it every second. From the moment that the band wrapped it up, the audience had a collective look of “What now?” It was a free show, in the band’s defense, and there are more than likely strict noise restrictions, which would explain why they drew to a close just before midnight. Though the performance as a whole rarely ventured into the “jam band” territory of the electronic genre, a blaspheme of the worst kind on the indie circuit, MacLean’s newest single “Happy House” looked to break down walls between the two camps as the show’s closer. Pushing 15 minutes of techno bliss in length, the song progressed through several movements from thumping to dizzying to just plain noisy. There even appeared to be, dare I say, a little bit of keyboard improv on MacLean’s part toward the end as the show just wouldn’t seem to let go. MacLean built up an overpowering series of peaks and valleys and just as the audience thought the band would bring the song crashing to a halt, it kicked back up one last time. The swirling and gyrating crowd did their best to keep up as the tall blonde standing next to me seemed to stretch to the ceiling at it’s utmost point. For all its brevity, this performance did succeed in whetting the small crowd’s appetite for a band that would put on a fully exhilarating performance under their normal circumstances. For me, a dazzling light display is generally a staple of the electronic scene and unfortunately, they were sorely missing from this particular show. Even for such a sparsely attended show, it still packed an extraordinary amount of energy and I will definitely be counted in attendance for future Triad dates. Hopefully others will follow suit.

To comment on this story, e-mail Ryan Snyder at ryan@yesweekly.com.

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