FUNKAGENDA'S two-hour set at Bijou on Friday night surprised many, disappointed some, and sure fooled me. True, that given how rapidly and often his sound has evolved these past five years, there was no telling what he would play this time. Last year at Gypsy Bar he played an entire set of fast, synth-y "progressive" house, which was itself a big shift from the bluesy, down-tempo house music that first made the UK's Adam Walder famous as Funkagenda. His top-ten downloads at Beatport still feature mostly "progressive" tracks, though of a more complicated, abrasive texture than his Gypsy Bar work; doubtless he plays such sweet-sounding music ("Xpander," "Drift," "Really Want To See You") somewhere. Yet that same Top Ten also includes "Shogun," his house music signature track (shared with Mark Knight), and two dubstep numbers, no less. Thus at Bijou he had liberty to play almost any danceable genre.
He played something else entirely. After some introductory minutes of reverb and that sandpaper beat that much of Funkagenda's top-ten flaunts, he dropped Swedish House Mafia's "Save the World," a track much overplayed but on Friday night imperative, given the horrific events of the day at Newtown, Connecticut. He played "Save the World" as is and then for the entire rest of his set played variations on its rhythm, beat, melody, voice, and arrangement -- variations and extensions, improvisations. He twisted every component of "Save the World" this way and that, punched it louder, gave it a full haircut of abrasion, let its melody trickle through the speakers. It was the sonic equivalent of mourners rending their clothes, shredding them, bewailing.
Using an Ableton PC program (which DJs tell me is the best attuned to complex presentation), Funkagenda returned again and again to "Save the World" after each distortion trip, as if for reassurance or to recharge his energies. Heard amidst the variations were a few of his harshest top tracks, especially "Deck 9," "Drift," and his top download, "Shinjuku," whose buzzfeed riff he sharpened out -- a beast's beat. Into this maw dropped Christmas carol noises, scratchy riffs, and various orchestral maneuvers. The beast was well and fiercely fed.
Much of the set wasn't danceable at all. People stood still watching. The club never did fill up, and by set's end the floor had more spilled drinks on it than people. One knowledgeable observer suggested to me that Funkagenda "had misread the room." That is not how this writer saw it. His set was a personal musical statement by a DJ who could easily have "read the room" in a city he had played only a year before. Why do we grant musicians of what we know as jazz -- a James Carter on saxophone, for example; a Brian Blade on drums, a Christian McBride on bass -- the artistic respect to make personal statements in their music yet not grant it to Funkagenda the DJ ? After all, jazz was dance music almost entirely until it became head music. Evidently the jazz audience understands its instrumentation habitually enough, and the music's conventions, to tolerate and even insist upon personal musical statements. Just as evidently, the audience for today's dance music -- DJ jazz played on mix-boards, CD players, and programs -- as yet remains too committed to the powerful physicality of the music to adventure its deeper aspirations. This writer, though, found Funkagenda's triumph of sadness -- the violence done to form trumped by the most beloved lullaby in today's EDM -- a strong affirmation. And an example to other DJ masters as DJ music moves beyond beat poetry.
Opening for Funkagenda was Jeff LeClair, Providence's strongest techno DJ and maybe in all New England. LeClair plays the cleanest techno sets this writer has heard locally; his chops never slack, and they didn't weaken at Bijou as he laid down a preface of beast beats, sandpaper riffs, and grumpy big rhythms. The joy in LeClair's set made Funkagenda's long elegy of sorrow feel even more to the point of mournful exorcism.