CRAIG MITCHELL, perhaps the Boston area's most soulful house music DJ, proved again at RISE on Saturday night that he well merits his reputation as the best in show. In a more than four-hour set he played both sides of his art, edgy evocations of mix equipment music and classic, 1990s house music send-ups.
Mitchell is the only Boston-area DJ this writer has seen who, in the manner of Jimi Hendrix with feedback (and very conscious of doing so), plays the sound-shaping capabilities of the mix board and CD players for their own sonic textures. At RISE, Mitchell filled the second hour of his set -- after a first hour of what he called "just a build up" -- with mixboard squawks, screeches, high pitch riffs and CD player chirp and scratch. All of these he applied chiefly to the numerous Stefano Noferini tracks in his CD bag; and Noferini, with his funky, growling bottom beats and glitch-voiced (a "glitch" vocal is one digitally pitched way down, like the witchcraft voices in a Parliament-Funkadelic song) commentary, makes an ideal platform from which Mitchell’s mixboard loops and CD player sound creases can elevate high, high, high.
The hour that Mitchell called "a build up" was hardly wasted. He set a 125 BPM pace, funky enough to loosen the dancers' defenses against a wide range of movie sound-track orchestral effects (Gothic, samba, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to RISE" -- you name it) that put a wry grin on the music.
By no means did Mitchell's first hour groove narrowly. Tracks by Sharam, David Herrero, John Creamer, and Miss Jennifer all appeared, as he blended "progressive house," "New York tribal," and techno into his signature soft soulfulness. And then came the Hendrix-ism.
Along with it, Mitchell put the spotlight quite literally upon himself, taking the mixboard's flashlight and waving it in front of his face, like George Clinton doing a séance move at a P-Funk concert. Back and forth Mitchell waved the light as he squeezed the mix-board's ribs and jammed the CD players' knee bones. The RISE dancers raised hands, shouted, stood facing Mitchell and cheering.
Mitchell’s music worked two zones: the funky, shove of low frequency beats and the atmospheric upper register, occupied often (and most dramatically) by "DJ tool" a cappellas, including, most pointedly, excerpts from Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech (which other soul DJs use and which perfectly grafts to house music rhythm at its most soul and gospel). Three times during his set Mitchell dropped King's words into the mix. Given what is going on out in Todd Akin land, and the hatred for President Obama, there was no mistaking Mitchell's very welcome message.
Mitchell's music of very low bottoms and very high DJ tools made its point all set long, militantly but also gorgeously. But then militant and gorgeous has always been Mitchell's voice, as DJ and as singer.
Around 4 am, Mitchell's set passed its peak, and so began a long coda back into his 20-plus years of house music, starting with Victor Calderone's signature song "Let Me Set You Free" and a "DJ tool" acappella of Danny Tenaglia's "Elements," both irresistible to fans of classic house music.
Mitchell owns the Slanted Black label, and at RISE he exploited its catalogue of tracks soulful and rhythmically melodramatic, often redolent of David Morales's sound. Sublimest at RISE was Kats & Styles's "You're My Everything" -- with a vocal by Mitchell, no less, very Robert Owens; very 1991, and welcomed back.
Indeed, Mitchell after 4 am celebrated those house music glory years. Mixing, however, in the slashing, quick-change manner of DJs today, he dropped one track after another that you might have heard in Montreal at a late night, upstairs boite back then -- and wanted to hear again: Danny Tenaglia's "Ohno," NY Stomp's "The NY House Track," Mitchell's own scat-riff mix of Nicki Scanni & Stephane K's "Go Deep," the "Babe from Outer Space" mix of Madison Avenue's "Don't Call Me Baby," Miss Kittin's "Frank Sinatra," and much much more. The tempo pitched up to 128 bpm. And then it gradually backed down to 125, as the night descended blissfully from a scream to a whisper.