At their fourth annual pre-Thanksgiving dance party at Boston's Royale, Madrid's much beloved DJ duo CHUS + CEBALLOS once again laid down their laws of rhythm and noise. The sound that they invented a decade ago -- "Iberican," they call it; a blend of Spanish dance pop and Nuyorican beats -- has shifted its levels. Then, the music was skittish and delicate and prettied with wind-like jet effects. Today they incorporate the massive low notes of techno. Yet their sound remains defiantly itself. Triumphantly, too.
No DJ this writer has seen recently, other than Victor Calderone, has managed, as strongly as Chus + Ceballos did in their Royale set, to make the muscle roar of techno go partners with the very different, girlier and more disco-influenced dance music that dominated house music before techno took over. And their two-hour Royale set bent techno's low notes to their own, Iberican songspeech more radically than Calderone's techno variations. They made techno surrender itself, like a guy losing an argument with his girlfriend.
Chanting girls, singing girls, sighing and tweety-birding topped the duo's techno; and it was the voices, not the low notes, that made the Royale crowd -- at least 800 strong -- dance its collective ass off. Stories there were plenty of -- even pop-dance stories -- including the duo's remix of Christina Aguilera's "Not Myself Tonight" and Made By Monkey's "I Think of You." Never had this writer heard a Chus + Ceballos set so lush with vocals. Tooled in, sampled, echo-blended, even featured as diva song. Voices piqued by percussion -- a percussionist joined them on stage -- put the sound and softness of skirt, heels, and lipstick out in front of everything low noted and rumbling.
Playing "Lost In Music," their Number One download at Beatport, a track that highlights many types of dance floor talk (including the softie-guy voice of Cevin Fisher, a DJ even more veteran than they), Chus + Ceballos simply could do no wrong. They extended the track, blended it into similar recent work (including Chus's "Estela" and his remix of Marco Poggioli's "Iris"), soared to Madonna's "Deeper and Deeper;" chanted "don't be shy" ... "there's fucking" ... "work your body to the beat" and "yes, you've got it" ... and, most ecstatic of all, "music makes you lose control...”
Chus + Ceballos weren't just DJs improvising a set. They directed the action almost as a square dance emcee calls out a square dance. And they mixed intensely, using two Mac Books and mixboards alongside Royale's four CD-player and mixboard sound system. At times Chus Esteban -- perhaps the deftest and most eloquent mix maker in house music today -- mixed on two mixboards at the same time, tweaking tones, editing passages, and imposing fade knob sound drops and silencing as drastically as the music called for change-ups. Chus has no fear when it's time to break the beat. At one point he quick cut his beat onto Jaydee's iconic 1992 hit "Plastic Dreams," a synth poem much closer to Yello's 1979 Eurodance hit "Bostich" than to anything Iberican. But Chus's cut proved just an excerpt, a kind of DJ joke: because after about 15 seconds Jaydee was shoved aside as Iberican sounds barged back in.
In no way should praise for Chus slight the important role that Pablo Ceballos delivered at Royale. While Chus mixed, Ceballos cued up a next track at just the right spot for Chus to jump onto it. Early in the set, it was Chus doing the cueing and Ceballos doing the mixing. Ceballos in fact set the rhythmic table and topside noise-making that gave shape to every girlish inspiration that Chus later grafted to thrill onto Ceballos's plant.
Such was the duo's main set. But there was more surprise in store. About 15 minutes before closing, they ended the set and, after a silence, began an entirely different shape. Out from the speakers came a potpourri of sounds -- 1980s Eurobeat, echoes of green Velvet's "Answering Machine," drum rolls, and Ya Kid K (remember her "Pump Up the Jam?") talking "Let's get this party started" -- one had to smile, as the party was about to end. Drum rolls led to streaky noises, more drums, percussion, all of it free-forming and re-forming, a kind of grand finale fireworks.
Here was a sculptured cheer that every dancer on the Royale floor raised hands to. Gals twirled; guys chased. As the fella standing next to me put it, "a shame we have to wait a full year to get this!"
Boston's own DJ Deka played a two-hour opening set that could certainly have stood as the main performance in any Boston dance club. Deka has sometimes tended to over-play, to show off his mixing and sequencing chops. Not this time. His sound was a simple low growl, half gym-bulge techno and half the softer but equally low rumble of house music, taken at house music's emblematic 126 BPM -- funky but happy as well. It was a set both sexy and suave and one of the most effective of the many, many Deka performances this writer has attended.