[dance party review] Sonically sophisticated sleaze: Lee Curtiss @ Bijou Boston 01.18.13

The headline is not mine, but I've adopted it because it nails Detroit DJ LEE CURTISS' sound. I found it in a YouTube posting of Curtiss' "Haters Haterz," a track appropriately sleazy and one that he dropped at Bijou Boston on Friday night. This was a two-hour set that moved at 124 BPM, a sleazy speed indeed, a low and sumptuously toned rumble pie overtopped by a shifting meringue of frosty, sugary detail. Sophisticated, for sure.

Curtiss has, it seems, played Boston before but not often; this was the first Curtiss gig I've attended in the three-plus years that his tracks have imposed their soulful sighs and funky dark beats upon me. His sound stands out even in headphones; much more so did it distinguish itself at Bijou. Though deep, his beats aren't the edgy pounding of techno nor the warble of standard "deep house." His rhythm looks back to funk and Motown -- very Detroit. His vocals echo Prince and the many singing gals who pucker him up. There is classic disco, too, in Curtiss' instrumentation, and comedic accents in his funk. He grew up too late, perhaps, to savor early 1980s band like Zapp, Cameo, and Newcleus (for example), but their juke music thrives in Curtiss' drops and tool-ins.

At Bijou, using a Traktor program and its vinyl 12-inch discs, and working just two channels, Curtiss fed one track after another into his commedie humaine, coaxing and tickling the dancers. And lifting them up with slouchy stumble rhythms spun out -- and out and out -- with very few break pauses.

He played many of his most popular tracks -- "Spending Time," reminiscent of Stephane Poumpognac's Hotel Costes sound; the wise-crackling "Freaks," "Haters," with its Bronx-cheer razz, the strut-walking "Smoking Mirrors" (nice pun), and, at set's end, "I Can Hear You Arthur," his tribute to fellow Mid-Westerner (and disco deviant), the late Arthur Russell. (More about this tune later.) Upon the same plaintive reverb and strumming bassline Curtiss posted instrumental commentary almost as curious -- and insightful -- as Russell's; but where Russell's songs declaim loneliness and loss and feel made for dancing solo in a cubby-hole, Curtiss' babble of drop-ins played social moves in club time. He had several conversations going on, snippets of one, then of another, sometimes of many at the same time. As that is, in fact, the dance floor in a crowded club, Curtiss' camera-flash instrumentations evoked from his Bijou fans a lot of danceable talk-back.

There was little mixology in Curtiss' playing. Mostly he gave brief tweaks to the pitch or guided one track's beat onto the next. Occasionally he imposed distortions upon the music but only at what, for most DJs, would have occasioned a pause point. Mostly he looped his riffs in long ostinato vamps, repetition as intoxication (1980 funk bands paraded the same move), urging on the dancers with a capella tool-ins like "get lifted," "deep inside," and -- of course -- "everybody here must party." The point was most definitely taken by about 300 fans on the floor, dancing as long as the sleazy chic lasted -- even though, curiously, Curtiss did not play "Body Twitch," his current number one download at Beatport. The tune was missed.

About 15 minutes before stop time, the club suddenly seemed rather empty. Those who left missed Curtiss shifting his sound almost completely, to a soulful get-high lullaby that brought Curtiss' Arthur-Russell-mode to the floor quite appropriately; for as the room emptied, Curtiss found himself playing to fewer and finally only to himself -- a situation rarely expressed in dance music and only by Russell so confidently.

Tamer Malki, one of Boston’s small but masterful circle of DJs who open for big name headliners and a frequent opener at Bijou, dropped a set in line with Curtiss' groove and detail. It was a sound quite different from Malki's usual, alternating between his favorite low slow ramble and Curtiss's angelic upper register and soft voice touch points. Yet it worked, as have all the many, many Malki sets that this writer has seen.

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