ROLANDO ROCHA, a DJ and track maker much more veteran than his youthful appearance, dropped a two-hour-plus set Thursday night at Cambridge's Middlesex Lounge. The floor was almost brim-full of fans who demonstrated that they knew his work even though Rocha is hardly a household name even in dance music. He is identified as a Detroit producer (even though he now lives in Scotland), and Detroit was on fans' minds, possibly kindled by the huge techno DJ festival that takes place there every spring. So it goes, in a genre where a DJ with his or her own voice, a city scene behind him, and the chops to speak it can gather converts well outside the radar.
The set came in four half-hour segments featuring mostly his own work. Most of it used only 12-inch vinyl discs, an old-school tactic that clearly still works. (Later on he also used the Lounge's two CD players, crafting three channel mixes.) Of these segments the first and last soared, the middle two much less so.
The strong segments rested on his own additions to the tasty basics of today's techno: tracks that include "New Blood," "Show Face," "Gimme a Beat," and his top download, "The Test." All of these lay down a rolling rumble, steel-drive beat carrying a full bag of catchy seductions; reverb basslines, synthy distortions suggestive of body shapes, sky and clouds, twisty rope lines -- cute and unspecifically seductive. There are very few sidebars in any of these tracks. As long as Rolando held this simple course, his music motored, lifted, envisioned and sang, even without voices. Further on, though, he tooled some "glitch" vocals into his sound, some Stonebridge-styled piano riffs -- lovingly sentimental, these -- and percussion that danced on the techno like an acrobat walking a tightrope high high high. It worked, it convinced, it had the Lounge's full floor dancing furiously.
The middle two segments rode an entirely different route on very different wheels. Though chiefly a techno DJ, Rolando has some deep house tracks in his crate and some Latin beats; these he proceeded to expatiate upon in his middle minutes. Few DJs can change the temperature, shape, and imagery of their music without confusing the message. Rolando was no exception. Though his fans on the floor liked his deep house plaintiveness and his Latin beat flirtations, the shift from power movement to intricacies made no sonic sense at all. In a two hour set there simply isn't time to take a one-hour digression or work a long sub-plot. There's barely enough time in two hours to tell just one story, for a DJ performance depends upon continuousness -- endless juice to the dancing tongue. This axiom Rolando's digression challenged, to no useful purpose. His strong final segment simply reminded this writer of just how powerful continuity he could have laid down had he held to the main chance. He seemed himself to recognize this; because as closing time approached -- and after it; Rolando didn't want to stop; the music here was his set's hottest -- he laid down a techno rhythm even more imaginatively textured than that of his first minutes, a sound that evolved from dazzle to shimmer. It rested on the "tribal" style now morphing techno everywhere. For Rolando the sound morph was a passionately tiger-burning wave weave, with strong strains of Dominican "bachata" aboard (and much more from South of everything Anglo) all the more vivid fused to Rolando's simple low techno -- a rolling rumble, growl and glitch.
The set should have continued, closing time or not. But it could not. It was too late. Very frustrating, that.
Two local DJs with strong chops opened. Alan Manzi and Matt McNeil worked in tandem, playing much the sort of glitch and Stonebridge, funky bottomed rhythms that Rolando expanded upon. And unlike his set, McNeil and Manzi's held its course, long enough to bend fans' inhibitions to their "dance your ass free" purposes. Rolando at his strongest had an expressively richer sound, but Manzi and McNeil's sustained their Rolando-preparing sound more confidently.