[dance party review] Quiet funk: Phonique @ Phoenix Landing 02.13.13

How does a DJ and track producer, one of whose YouTube vidclips has over 12 million views get booked into Cambridge's Phoenix Landing, where the dance floor accommodates maybe 200 fans? Yet 12 million views it is, for Berlin, Germany's Michael Vater, who DJs as PHONIQUE. The vidclip in question is "Feel What You Want." Intense, sentimental, and funky, it features the husky voice of Rebecca -- no last name given -- and is by far this season's biggest vocal house music hit. The track's a worthy successor to Avicii's "My Feelings For You" and Dennis Ferrer's "Hey Hey (I Heard You Say)," both of them monster hits in House Nation, made by DJs who draw thousands to their many gigs across the world. Yet Phonique's set didn't entirely fill Phoenix Landing.

Phonique's self-effacing presence certainly belies that 12 million. Somewhat bearded, his head topped by a dark blue wool ski cap, and sporting a t-shirt as dark as the cap, he seemed to dissolve into the dimly lit stage upon which his mix board stood. Nor did he makes any body moves, or say anything out of phase, to spark interest. He simply said "welcome to the party" and began his set.

It was a peculiar set to hear a major veteran DJ play: Vater has been doing this since at least the late-'90s and was a club party promoter for many years before that. He is no longer a youngster and surely understands the DJ mission. Yet his set avoided the deep flavors of classic house music -- and the abstract noise bends of techno almost by design. His bio at Wikipedia says that Phonique built his reputation on playing all kinds of music, whatever he felt the dance floor mood to be. His set at Phoenix Landing supported his reputation. Though he held -- typical of European DJs -- to the same funky low reverb all set long, he blended it into all sorts of odd, almost forgotten dance music. There was disco circa 1977; there was reggae toasting. Played a few minutes of dinky-tweety, Montreal beats circa 1984. Current dancey pop could be heard now and then. He of course played his own work as well; but most of it was tracks from many years back with a lightly exotic beat far different from the massive rhythms that hold dance fans today.

DJs often drop excerpts from bygone dance music or pop swish into their mix, but few make such memorial and cuteness the centerpieces of their sound. Phonique focused on both. Strange, too, was the quiet of his sound. He seemed to be holding back, to be whispering asides to the dancers even when dropping funk and tweaking upper register orchestrations into one blend of beat and detail which only take vivid shape when the music plays loud. Phonique did not play loud. Nor did he sculpt his sound aggressively. He stood laid back at the mixboard and two CD players and mostly guided the music left and right.

Nor did his restraint give way even when, after much vocal build-up, he dropped "Feel What You Want." A filtered intensity arose from it like a sunrise in mist; the dancers cheered and chanted his name over and over, sang the words; and they sounded much louder -- and more deliriously joyous -- than the track itself in Phonique's hands. The set's peak was the dancers' doing. Perhaps that was Phonique's point.

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