At RISE Club on Saturday night, veteran UK DJ and track-maker DANNY HOWELLS dropped a five-hour set on an almost full-house dance floor. Actual five-hour sets come rarely to Boston house music fans, but when they do, they separate the masters from the blasters. Two hours, a reasonably dextrous DJ can usually manage without losing edge; not so with a five-hour performance. Howells, however, had a trick in hand; he divided his five hours into two sets very dissimilar. Many long-playing DJs do that, too; usually when they do it, the second set lacks the fire of the first. Not so with Howells. There was as much, if not more, improvisational fizz in his second, emphatically techno set, than in his tribal funk, first 150 minutes of continuous trip.
Howells's first roll-out featured much of his currently popular work including either "Psychotic Bump" and "Liquid Thang" or edited versions thereof. Once upon a time a maker of "trance" sounds, Howells today likes funky, murmuring, and lullaby bottoms, triplet beats, and talking top notes of many kinds -- disco girls chanting, soft-skinned boy voices, raunchy divas. It’s a sound as dreamy as dance-inducing, and impalpably horny, an orgasm of the mind given spin by the body.
Using three channels in the RISE CD player system and no PC program, Howells dropped one dreamy traipse after another, a leggy strut; there was also plenty of mid-register silence, giving the music room to parade and breathe. The dancers, too. At times his first-set sound recalled UK "garage" of the late 1990s: its delicate soulfulness and even more delicate beat bop, relaxing push-push and bright-soft with jazzy flutings. Into which from time to time Howells infused a bigger, boomy boot-stomp -- how fun, indeed.
There was little editing in his first set, but in his second he held back nothing of the DJ arts. Overlays of melodic warble and deep funk basslines; cuts from trippy noise abstractions to tribal percussion, done solo and out front; fade knob switching from one overlaid sound to the other, and back again with a different overlay; stutter-knob repeats to jack a vocal; high vibe fusion lines and low reverb. In his second set Howells also played stuff that only his present fans' parents might have danced to: late disco -- Europop especially -- and much 1980s Italo-techno, even a Montreal club hit version -- 1980s disco guys almost all remember Nancy Martin's "Can't Believe," with its deadpan horniness and loud droll, uber-Giorgio Moroder reverb bass line. There it was, embedded lustfully in Howells's rolling, roiling techno.
Howells too was feeling the feel. He danced at the mix-board. His head bobbed. Raised his hands in the air. Only RISE's most persistent dancers remained to feel his second set reach its peak of free form, but Howells well rewarded them.
Sounds jumped each other with joyous inconsistency, as he cut from techno to tribal to the two blended, as Victor Calderone showed DJs how but in no way the same sound. One strain of tribal tech dissolved into another, glitch voices tooled in to grin and growl, and finally he played a soaring Kate Bush-like voice going "It don't matter to me" -- which one has the right to say after so many hours of diligent deftness of twist and breathe.
It was the first Howells performance this writer has attended. Does he rise to such eloquence often? Even if not, the set placed Howells in this writer's top list of DJ expression, soundscape management, improvisation, and edge.