10 Lessons We Learned from Together Festival
- Words: Michael C. Walsh
- Photo: Neil Matheson
In terms of sheer scope, Together is gargantuan. The 2013 edition of the yearly Boston event was spread across eight days in a citywide selection of venues, acting as much as a test of endurance as a music festival. And based upon everything we saw this past week during our attendance of the event's fourth annual incarnation, there appear to be no signs of organizers scaling things back. Processing it all was no easy task, but after persevering through a week-plus run of DJs and live performers taking to the various Boston stages, we've come up with a list of 10 key observations about what this year's Together had to offer.
The festival's name is not a misnomer.
A quick briefing of how Together works: the city's most prominent party promoters dig as deep as they can into their contacts, attempting to net dream bookings. They then present their best efforts, as they normally would, at clubs throughout the main portion of Boston and surrounding boroughs, like Cambridge and Allston. The only difference is that all these parties and shows serve under the banner of this single festival. These nights run the gamut—from experimental techno to drum & bass to deep house. On top of that, Together's organizers also seek out national tours passing through the Northeast, and convince them to trip through Boston, presenting a handful of those shows at some of the city's larger local venues. Sprinkle in some daytime panel discussions, art installations, and movie screenings, and that's Together in a nutshell.
Ultimately, because of the decision to include everyone in the planning process, the festival lacks the nuanced curation of something like Decibel or MUTEK. As such, much of the line-up caters to niche concerns, limiting the appeal of each show to a select few. This means that ticket sales are an obvious concern, which strengthens the temptation to tack on a "name" artist to stir some fervor amongst the public. Perhaps that's how Together 2013 ended up with the likes of Juicy J and ƱZ serving as primary selling points. That said, simply focusing on the acts that wouldn't necessarily get XLR8R readers off their couch is missing the point. It would have been nice to see Together streamline the offerings a bit, but perhaps the overarching breadth assured that there'd be something for everyone.
Anthony Naples wins the award for Most Improved Player.
Back in January, we profiled Anthony Naples as part of our Bubblin' Up week. At the time, the young DJ/producer mentioned that he was still honing his DJ skills in preparation for a European tour. Apparently, the overseas jaunt did wonders for Naples' chops. Slotted as Tuesday's opener for Four Tet at the much-venerated Middle East club (which served as the festival's official headquarters and was done up with an excess of LED paneling and a trumped-up soundsystem), the New York artist was granted a high-profile 90 minutes to flex his record collection in the sold-out basement spot. In spite of the seeming indifference amongst the bevy of beat heads waiting around for the headliner, Naples stuck to his roots, paying particular service to the distorted crunch of contemporaries like Huerco S. and the L.I.E.S. coalition. When the crowd finally reacted with even with a half-zealous "woo," it made for one of the more precious moments of the entire week. Naples still seems surprisingly taken aback by the adoration that comes with being a renowned DJ, as he would consistently let off a sheepishly uncheckable grin in response to the hollering.
Andrés has a PhD in polarizing dancefloors.
Arguably the most anticipated set of the week, elder Detroit stanchion Andrés had the Middlesex Lounge brimming for his midnight start time on Thursday. The opening residents wrapped a feverish, three-hour warm up of frazzled contemporary house with a disco hue, only to have DJ Dez step behind the decks and suck everything out the room with a breezy, soul-infused cover of Steve Miller Band's "Fly Like An Eagle." Things weren't quick to escalate from there, as he worked in oddly pitched-up raps from A Tribe Called Quest and Souls of Mischief, sending folks toward the door in search of their anticipated deepness elsewhere. Patience paid off for those who stuck it out, though. Around 1 a.m., the sweeping strings of Andrés' "New for U" trickled into the proceedings, accompanied by a gnashed together mix of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." All bets were off from there, as everything became free game: Prince's "Purple Music," a white-labeled Gil Scott-Heron remix, and even "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" by Kendrick Lamar popped up. A lot gets made of a DJ's role in catering to a room, but sometimes willing a dancefloor into submission can be just as rewarding.
Crystal Castles delivers mania for folks of all ages.
Monday's offerings were a tad bare by nature of its place in the week. After realizing that pacing our intake was the best course of action, we opted for the early evening Pictureplane and Crystal Castles bill. Though we had our sights set on the opening act, it was Crystal Castles who offered the surprise set of the week. Although a nearby gaggle of adolescents whipping their hair without regard for their surroundings threatened to ruin the show, the performance still served as a welcome reminder that even the most grating electronic sounds can be refreshing in moderation. Crystal Castles' stripped-back live performance was driven only by a handful of carefully placed strobe lights and the rambunctiousness of frontwoman Alice Glass. She thrust her body into the crowd with little regard for anyone's well-being, gargled down a bottle of Jim Beam, and lit cigarette after cigarette—paying no mind to the venue's staunch security. The unadulterated energy was truly undeniable.
Catching the Flying Lotus (pictured at top) and Thundercat bill was a no brainer, as the pair always seem to play off one another effortlessly. Yet somehow, their back-to-back sets for last Sunday's Brainfeeder-helmed opening party didn't reflect this. Thundercat was fully up to the task of leading his three-piece ensemble, as he abused his wood-grained six-string with a fire typically reserved for lead guitarists. In contrast to the drifting nature of his The Golden Age of the Apocalypse LP, the live set was confidently to the point.
Flying Lotus, on the other hand, came off as meandering, sometimes even lost, and the oblong rectangle shape of the Paradise Rock Club did few favors for his intricate visuals. Nestled behind opaque netting and in front of a backdrop screen, he was meant to appear as though he was voyaging through deep space. But unless viewed head-on, the effect was rendered null by the shape of the room, a near-impossible task in the oversold club. Making things worse was the fact that FlyLo abandoned the decks any time he managed to spark a hint of momentum, running to the front of the stage to assume his rap alter-ego Captain Murphy. Still, the younger crowd didn't seem to mind and reveled in the freeform platform, especially when he took the time to introduce a new song that he produced for Earl Sweatshirt's forthcoming LP. On the other hand, those looking for more cohesion and subtlety from his live performance likely left unsatisfied.
Zomby does what he wants, and everyone just has to deal with it.
Saddled with a pretty nasty reputation, Zomby at least proved that he was a man of his word on Saturday night. Earlier that afternoon, he let off a tweet that read "im unleash some demons on boston tonight i hope you bring your bible to the dance." After taking to the stage 15 minutes late despite a strict curfew, he owned up to those lofty expectations. Merely selecting songs off a laptop—sometimes letting them play out to the point of silence before picking another one—Zomby opened with 10 minutes of churning ambience before diving into some abrasive jungle. People looked confused and Zomby looked indifferent, only motioning to lift his mask a tad and sip on his champagne bottle. Halfway through his hour-long set, one audience member, clearly taking umbrage to Zomby's reluctance to play towards anyone's expectations but his own, positioned himself at the front of the stage and raised a middle finger in the producer's direction. Without missing a beat, Zomby flicked the remnants of a spliff at the dude and cut the jungle in favor of brutalist techno, the most lethal selection being Boddika's VIP take on his and Joy Orbison's "Mercy." When someone came over to inform him that he was nearing his time limit, he put on "Dis Ain't What U Want" by the comparably polarizing drill rapper Lil Durk. Zomby let it bang for eight bars, and kept reloading it until the soundman had no choice but to cut him off. Some of the crowd reveled in every second of it, while there were others who simply weren't buying it.
Go see Objekt as soon as possible.
A shoebox-sized Irish soccer bar might seem like a less than ideal space to house the shadowy textures of Objekt, but therein lies one of the sneakily cool aspects of Together. With different circumstances, the Berlin-based artist might be capable of drawing a much bigger crowd; but because the people behind JASS typically hold their monthly outings at the Phoenix Landing, and because Four Tet was playing on the same block at the same time, there were maybe 50 people at this particular show. Nevertheless, those with enough foresight to make sure they were in attendance were treated to the set of the week. Exhibiting an uncompromising hand, tossing on record after record of flagrantly warped techno, Objekt smelted the crowd into a heap of bodily contortions. Some were even compelled to bang their head in time to the industrial thump. Seeing as his career has only excelled in the two years since he arrived on the scene, it would be impossible to say Objekt is at his peak. But if he keeps up the kind of momentum displayed this past Tuesday, he might not be far off.
Get familiar with the name John Barera.
Because a large chunk of the week consisted of showcases for local parties to peddle their brands, we'd be remiss in not mentioning the residents who provide the city with its sound for the surrounding 51 weeks. Best amongst the lot was John Barera, a fixture at Cambridge's Make It New parties. That weekly Thursday event has mutated its scope over the past couple of years away from bass music toward more adventurous house and techno fare, thanks in no small part to Barera's presence. Taking to the decks with a tumultuous bop to coincide with his selections, he delivered one of the more ardently rowdy sets of the week. Unfortunately, he was given the unlucky task of opening for Andrés, who probably would've just prefered to walk into a room of dead silence and go from there, but Barera's reverence to the veteran shined through his warm-up set.
Duke Dumont is about to be a thing in the States, too.
Friday's Turbo showcase at the Middle East was a bit of an unusual affair. There was a spike in the number of attendees who had little clue that the night was even part of the festival, and were mainly there just because it was a place to dance on a non-work night. (Unfortunately, that also meant they were there to shrilly whistle in time with and holler along to headliner Duke Dumont's "Need U (100%).") Opening sets from Bordello and Nautiluss offered hour-long slots of light-hearted 4/4 sounds accented with slingshot drops, and Duke Dumont pushed more of the same. Still, after a week of hearing more challenging fare, an opportunity to mindlessly shuffle around while mouthing along to vocal hooks like "bump it" and "let's jack" was an oddly welcome reprieve. When the lights came up near 1:30 a.m., Duke Dumont's syrupy remix of HAIM's "Falling" was greeted with the largest crowd response of the week. If his Together appearance is any indication, the Londoner's star may be poised to shine just as brightly here in the States as it currently does across the pond.
Eight days is too long for a festival.
Quite honestly, the lack of unified curation largely worked in Together's favor, with every day honing a different vibe from the last. That said, eight nights is entirely too long for a festival. Even some music obsessives—including the organizers themselves—seemed to be overwhelemed by the sheer number of events throughout the week. Granted, there was one night off, a better solution would be to condense the fest to a four or five-day outing. There was no need to cut any of the acts—they just needed to be scheduled more tightly. How sweet would a double billing of Andrés and Chez Damier have been, as opposed to having them play consecutive nights? Or what if Objekt had been paired with Four Tet, instead of having them overlap at venues that practically touch one another? Of course, Boston's puritanical 2 a.m. curfew is tough to work around, so why not start earlier? Eight hours of music spread across for four days could help draw out-of-towners looking to check out the city for a long weekend.
All that said, Together remains a festival by Bostonians for Bostonians, a fitting labor of love for a city in need of as much love as it can get. Reminders of last month's Boston Marathon tragedy were visible at every turn, and a palpable sense of community was on full display this past week. It made Together all the more enriching for the city and its people.
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